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Riverside Theatre’s haunting production adds new ghosts to their adopted historical theater home


Eden Prairie, 1971

Through Feb. 20 -- Riverside Theatre, $15-35


Kyle Clark (foreground) as Pete in the world premiere of ‘Eden Prairie, 1971.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

Eden Prairie, 1971 is not only Riverside Theatre’s first show in their newly renovated space on the Ped Mall, but — as a part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere — Riverside is the first theater to fully produce the newest work from playwright Mat Smart (who also wrote the final play Riverside produced pre-pandemic, The Agitators).

Like many, I’d been excitedly awaiting the reveal of Riverside Theatre’s new building. I wish I could say I was just as anxiously awaiting Mat Smart’s newest offering, but as I hadn’t seen his previous work, didn’t know what I was missing. I’m not going to lie, I bought a ticket to a preview of Eden Prairie primarily for the chance to (finally) get to see inside the building.

And while we’re being honest, I will admit to a niggling question I harbored before entering the anticipated space: Assuming that all great theaters are haunted — how long does it take for ghosts to take up habitation in a brand new place? When could I expect a new venue to be properly haunted, i.e. send that special chill down the audience’s collective spine? To say it another way, metaphorically of course, do you have to just endure the early bland meals cooked in a brand new cast iron skillet, before the pan is properly seasoned over time?

I was pleased to put my nebulous unseasoned/spirit-bereft worries to rest after night one. First off, I quickly learned that when transforming a historic building like 119 E College St into a new site for theater-making, you simply must take care to retain the previous century’s worth of ghosts. (I think architectural firm Neumann Monson did especially well with this.)

Christina Sullivan (L) as Rachel and Kyle Clark as Pete in Mat Smart’s ‘Eden Prairie, 1971.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

The second ingredient for a properly seasoned space proved to be even more vital. And while I tip my hat to the board and leadership of Riverside for creating a beautiful, possibility-filled venue, it is Adam Knight’s artistic vision and the team of artists he brings together that adds the substance to the pot. What is needed to turn a space into a Theater is the vulnerable, audacious, moving and important stories told there. Theater doesn’t exist without first: the story. And with the debut of Smart’s hauntingly poignant Eden Prairie, 1971 — a new theater was made in Iowa City.

My spine was host to more than one chill and my cheeks were (embarrassingly) rarely dry as I took in this new piece beautifully written by Smart and expertly directed by Knight. The two talented theater makers flex their artistic muscles with this production — and I felt lucky to partake in their skillful and care-filled storytelling.

When I tried to talk through what the play was “about” after the show, I realized that — like any great piece of art — you can’t just say “It’s about X.” If you could, then, well, you’d simply say that and not bother to create the art. At the heart of Smart’s play is something big, raw, beating and important. But it takes the whole play itself to say it.

To begin, walking into the room where it happens, Jim Vogt’s dim blue, moon dappled lighting design and Chris Okiishi’s musical choices of James Taylor and Bill Withers invite the ghosts of our collective past to enter along with us virtually undetected. We’re in a familiar-looking Midwestern backyard in an ageless summer tableau of patchy grass, tree swing and plastic woven chaise, adjacent to an understated white ranch house designed by S. Benjamin Farrar. It’s so easy to feel at home here that when we meet the characters, I have to remind myself they are not high school classmates of mine that I’ve just not seen in years.

All three characters in this tight script are well-wrought with full histories entwining and unspooling in front of the audience through exceptionally well-timed info drips. I was always on the edge of putting more of the pieces together, slowly, carefully, as the characters got closer, then farther away from each other and from telling the whole truth.

Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers (foreground) as Mrs. Thompson in ‘Eden Prairie, 1971,’ running through Feb. 20. — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

Knight’s blocking of the two central characters (plus the actors’ skillful physicality within it), told so much of the story, I’d be willing to watch the production without words. (Though the words themselves are lovely, with none extraneous or wasted.) These old friends/near strangers, played by Kyle Clark and Christina Sullivan, dance around each other, connecting and disconnecting, weaving their young lives and dreams and fears in and out of sync. Their tenuous but deeply needed shared rhythm builds until broken by the third character, a chaos agent of a mother played to perfect vulnerable/volatile pitch by Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers.

The mother’s addition of literal dancing in the backyard manages to be so completely out of step with the two young people’s found rhythm, we can’t be sure whose music is real. Knight’s beautiful staging of these three actors seems especially noteworthy given how hard it is for three actors to play to every (brand new) seat in the intentionally flexible house — currently configured along two perpendicular sides of a thrusting stage.

Nothing in Smart’s treatment of war or specifically how the U.S. involvement in Vietnam affected average people’s lives is simple, straightforward or easy. But in this masterful production, each moment of realization that a character came to was earned; and each time someone chose to expose themselves or their truth, I believed that the character was making that choice while still scared. No one lost their fears. But on this one late summer Minnesota evening, while a war raged on the other side of the earth, two men drove a buggy on the moon and one man waited alone in outer space, these three characters found a few moments to be brave with and for each other.

I loved this new work in this new building because it gave me so much hope for what is to come — not just for Mat Smart’s gorgeous play or the next 40 years of Riverside Theatre, but for the intangible magic that is live theater. Can you believe it has the ability to still, after millennia, stir our hearts and haunt us anew?


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