Friday, September 26, 2014

Familiar threads in Swander's "Map of My Kingdom"

So many familiar threads were woven into Mary Swander's play, "Map of My Kingdom," performed last evening at the C.B.&Q. Freight House by Madeleine Russell as season-opener for the Vredenburg Performing Arts series. That's Swander, poet, author and playwright, above; and Russell at left.

One of the friends I attended with, for example, resettled some years ago with others on farms west of Corydon in Wayne County, refugees from the East Coast after a family farm there co-owned by siblings had to be sold so that assets could be divided. Family members who loved the land and wished to continue to farm couldn't even begin to afford more land nearby because of proximity to a major city. And so they moved half way across the country to southern Iowa, where affordable land was available. That story has a happy ending --- they are happy here. But the Pennsylvania land, less happily, now is covered by urban sprawl.

There were tragic threads, too. I'm sure many of us recognized the factual basis for a fictionalized thread turned by Swander into a fatal land dispute between brothers. The real-life basis for this element of the play happened just up the road near Milo during 2003 when Rodney Heemstra gunned down his neighbor, Tom Lyon, a competitor for a small patch of pasture, then threw Lyon's body into an abandoned cistern and covered it with straw. That land dispute claimed a life, shattered families and divided a rural community, leaving scars that in some cases will be evident for generations.

Practical Farmers of Iowa commissioned the beautifully crafted Swander play to draw attention to the potential conflicts that can develop where careful planning is absent when it becomes necessary to pass land-based "kingdoms" --- in this case family farms --- from one generation to another. Up to 56 percent of Iowa landowners are over the age of 65, so a huge shift in land ownership will occur during the next 20 years; and the fear is that much of it will pass from hands of owner-farmers.

Russell was amazing as the principal character, a professional land dispute mediator who wove stories from her own fictional family together with those of "clients," shifting easily from time to time into other characters by modifying inflection and costume. She easily carried a full hour packed solidly with coversational dialogue without hesitation or stumble --- how do actors remember all of those lines?

The warm and rustic wooden walls and subdued lighting of the Freight House provided the perfect setting for the intimate in-the-round production. We were seated with the Lutheran contingent, uncharacteristically occupying front "pews," just a foot or two from Russell as she performed. That was wonderful.

After the performance, Swander led 15 or 20 minutes of discussion --- asking those in the audience to reflect a little on their experiences --- before we headed for cookies, coffee and more conversation.

If you have an opportunity to attend a performance of "Map of My Kindom," for heaven's sake, do it. Upcoming will be performances at 2 p.m. this Sunday at the Wilson Performing Arts Center in Red Oak and at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14, at Grinnell College. And thanks to the Vredenburg series and the Lucas County Arts Council for bringing the production to Chariton --- and to the Freight House.

The other friend I was with last night likes to tell non-Iowans that her home state is just a small town between two rivers, since some sort of connection always seems to turn up. Gayle Bortz was seated just to my right last night. As it turns out, she is Mary Swander's cousin. There ya go ....

Jill Kerns, who serves on the Vredenburg series selections committee, visits with Madeleine Russell after Thursday evening's performance.

No comments: