Tim Sanford on Iowa
Heaven and earth do not touch one another
But oh look at the clouds
Look at the highest clouds
– From Iowa by Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond
The formal zaniness of Iowa, from its footloose characterizations, to the playful quicksilver of its language and its loosey-goosey narrative, bears a passing resemblance to work sometimes described as “Theater of the Absurd.” Yet, while it is true that Iowa certainly runs giddily away from the clanking chains of realism, it takes no measure of the meaninglessness of reality. It takes delight in its over-the-top characters and finds them as fascinating as they are confounding. These include Sandy, a motor-mouthed, scattered single mom who has found a fiancé on Facebook, a singing pony, a made-over Nancy Drew who comes in four different races, and a janitor named Jesus; but at its root, Iowa is a sweet coming-of-age story of Becca, a teenage girl trying to survive high school and a spectacularly daffy mother.
The world of Iowa is so outlandish that I sometimes think about Becca as a kind of latter day Alice, albeit a 14-year-old as opposed to Carroll’s seven-and-a-half-year-old. Both Becca and Alice are curious, sensible, and resilient, but the propulsive drive of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is essentially escapist. As the Cheshire Cat pronounces, “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.” In Iowa, the relationship of the imagination to reality feels more sympathetic, as suggested in the quote about heaven, earth and clouds cited above from its finale. The characters in Iowa know they are earthbound. And they mostly know they can’t find heaven there, even if they do want to jump the bones of Jesus the janitor or buy a burka online at Amazon.com. But the dichotomy of heaven and earth, imagination and reality runs all the way through it. Becca self-identifies as a poet, but she’s in love with her math teacher. Many of the characters seek rapture in sex, but then experience it as just a bodily function. And when Sandy and Becca move to Iowa, Sandy is put off by the smell of manure on her new husband’s farm, yet at the same time, Becca comes to see Iowa as a wondrous place, with a landscape that stretches to infinity, to Mars, and with a big sky filled with fabulous clouds. Clouds, as we know, are made from the moisture of the earth, but they live in heaven, direct imaginative evocations of our earthly verticality.
The beautiful secret of Iowa lies in the sublime harmonic convergence of its two collaborators. Jenny’s wild and giddy dramaturgy skates virtuosically over its ever-submerged yearning, but its poignant subtext is perfectly incarnated by Todd’s sublimely hieratic melodicism. Todd is one of the great rising stars of the world of musical theater-making (it seems almost criminally reductive to say “of the musical theater”). And their collaboration is magical. I am not spoiling anything to promise you that you will find yourself almost wholly unprepared that a play as delightfully subversive—both nuanced and larger-than-life—will leave you so gloriously moved and emotionally satisfied.