The new play “Eden Prairie, 1971” is having its theatrical world premiere this month at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, Iowa.
Set in an Eden Prairie backyard, the play takes place the night of the 1971 Apollo 15 moon landing, when Vietnam draft dodger Pete, home from Canada, initiates a conversation with high school classmate Rachel.
The play grew, in part, from the time playwright Mat Smart spent reading the letters written by veterans of several wars, including Vietnam, at the Minnesota Historical Society while working on a separate project.
“I was just really struck with how so many young men had to make a decision to move to Canada if they didn’t want to fight” in Vietnam, he said.
“This play touches on a shared American experience,” Riverside’s producing artistic director Adam Knight said. “It was a shared trauma for some, and for others this sense of duty and obligation, but it was something that affected everyone who was living at that time.”
Although based on history, the play also has modern relevance, Knight said. “It felt like a play that would speak to our audiences both because of the past but also because of the now. This is a moment of intense political divide.”
“Trying to ask questions about the current climate, but through the lens of history, is something that I think is really exciting and that allows people to be more receptive to the questions and answers that they see on stage,” added Smart.
Why “Eden Prairie”?
Smart chose for the play to be set in Minnesota due to the geographic proximity to Canada. Why Eden Prairie, specifically? “I was always so struck by the names’ Eden Prairie’ and ‘Purgatory Creek,’” Smart said. “It feels so American, and also kind of Old Testament.”
He heard the names while living in Minneapolis for three years on fellowships at The Playwrights’ Center. Smart did visit Eden Prairie while he was in the area, and also made friends with an actor who had attended Eden Prairie High School – “so I know a little bit about the Eden Prairie Eagles,” he said. The southwest suburban location also mirrored his own hometown of Naperville, Illinois, a southwestern suburb of Chicago.
Mostly, though, the choice for the setting was about the name: “There’s a moment in the play that feels very Garden of Eden,” Smart said. “And there’s a moment in the play where one of the main characters is dealing with his own kind of purgatory, based on his actions. So there’s symbolism in these names, and it lends itself to the drama of the play.”
Knight said he finds the setting of “Eden Prairie, 1971” very reminiscent of “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller, a play that takes place during a war and in a backyard. “There’s something interesting to me about a play that talks an awful lot about a moon landing and an awful lot about a war that takes place halfway across the globe but [is set on]the homefront,” he said. “What I think theater does so well is, it finds the personal and intimate implications of large-scale events. So the setting, for me, is very apt in that way.”
While the play’s dialogue doesn’t focus on the Eden Prairie location, “one of the characters does work at Lund’s,” Smart said. Knight added that, “the topography: the creek, the reeds, the proximity to the water, is definitely a factor in the play.” Scenic designer S. Benjamin Farrar also researched the appearance of Minnesota houses to create the one whose backyard forms the set for the play.
How to see the show
“Eden Prairie, 1971,” takes place on one set, with no scene changes and no intermission, and the play’s action happens in real time. “The 95 minutes that transpire on the stage for the audience are the same 95 minutes that transpire for the characters,” Smart said. “I think that’s something that theater can do that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Performances of “Eden Prairie, 1971” at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City are live and in-person. The show opens Friday, February 4, and runs through Sunday, February 20. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Covid precautions include a fully vaccinated company, 50% capacity performances on Sundays and Thursdays, and requirements for audience members to wear masks and present either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of attendance.
The show’s opening also coincides with the opening of a new building for Riverside Theatre. While the theater company has produced three other live shows since the pandemic began, two outdoors and one in an art gallery, “Eden Prairie, 1971” is its first ticketed event since the pandemic and its first show in the new downtown Iowa City building.
“Not only are audiences hearing this play for the first time, they’re also hearing it in a space that’s never before housed a performance,” Knight said. “We thought ‘What better way to open this new facility than with a world premiere play?’”
As part of the Rolling World Premiere flagship program of the National New Play Network, “Eden Prairie, 1971,” will, Knight said, “essentially have three world premieres.” Plays within the program can be presented at three different theaters within a certain amount of time. “It gives the playwright a chance to travel with the production, to work on the play with a different set of actors, a different set of designers and directors, and to really continue to let the play find itself,” Knight said.
The other two theaters which will premiere “Eden Prairie, 1971” are the Butterfly Effect Theatre of Colorado in Boulder and the New Jersey Repertory Company. Both have the production slated for their 2022-23 seasons, with dates yet to be determined.
For more information or to purchase tickets for the Riverside Theatre performances, visit www.riversidetheatre.org, or call 319-887-1360 (Tuesday through Friday).
Comments aren’t allowed on our site, but we do offer several ways to provide feedback, and have your voice heard. If you believe the story has an error, or would like to get in touch with the author, please contact us. If you would like to respond directly to this article, we welcome and encourage Letters To the Editor. You can find details on how to submit a letter on our contact page.