The Pella Chronicle
---- — Union Street Players, Pella’s award-winning community theatre is working on their spring production, “Ham Buns and Potato Salad” a thoughtful comedy about small town Iowa. The show is being directed by Central College’s Ann Wilkinson, who recently won the “Innovative Teacher Award” from Region V of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. The show is cast with a number of USP regulars who will be familiar to audiences along with two young actors making their debut on the stage of the Joan Kuyper Farver Auditorium.
“Ham Buns and Potato Salad” is an original, full-length play by Pella resident, Tom Vander Well. USP has produced several original works by local playwrights over the years. It can be a challenge to draw audiences to unfamiliar shows, but the local community theatre sees this as a unique opportunity for writers, directors and actors to stage new and original works. It is an opportunity that most community theatres do not experience. Vander Well recently took the time to respond to some of the frequently asked questions he has been asked as curiosity about the show has been growing.
Q: What is the show about?
A: The play is set in a fictional small Iowa town in the summer of 1991. There has been a tragic accident and the town is preparing for the funeral of an older couple who were well established members of the community. Their only son is returning home for the first time since he graduated from high school. When the son left for college he found himself embroiled in a town scandal involving a girl who was his next door neighbor and his best friend. Questions about the scandal were never resolved, which means it has always been a source of gossip and whispers in the community. The young man made a quite a name for himself, but he has never come home to deal with his past. Now, with the unexpected death of his parents, he is forced to return home. As you can imagine, the small town is buzzing with anticipation.
Q: What does the title of the show, “Ham Buns and Potato Salad”, mean?
A: The tragic event which drives the action of the play is a funeral. If you’ve been to a funeral in rural Iowa you know that the reception, which is usually held in the church basement or Fellowship Hall, will have a requisite menu of ham buns and potato salad. Of course, there is also Jell-O cake, brownies, potato chips, iced tea and coffee, but I couldn’t fit the whole menu in the title. I’ve been pleased by the number of people who have heard the title and immediately asked me “Is it about a funeral?” Perhaps it will seem a private joke to anyone who isn’t familiar with small town Iowa, but that just makes me like it even more.
Q: What will people like about the play? Why should someone come see the play?
A: I like to think that there’s something in it for everyone. If you like comedies you’re going to experience a lot of laughter. If you like dramas you’ll love the conflict and underlying seriousness. If you like action, you’ll appreciate the gunfire. If you like romance you’ll be touched by the love story. If you like thrillers you’ll appreciate the twist. There are a number of themes which will resonate with people all over the map: love, romance, life, death, faith, tragedy, family, sin, forgiveness, and grace. The thing that excites me most is to think of the conversations that the play will inspire among audience members after the show is over. I’m encouraging small groups and groups of friends to come to the show as a social outing or group date night then go out for coffee or a drink after the show. I’m trusting that the show will prompt some interesting discussions.
Q: So, is the play a comedy or a tragedy?
A: It is essentially a comedy. I guarantee that audiences will laugh and enjoy themselves. The characters will seem familiar. Some have joked that I need to add a disclaimer about similarities between the characters and actual, local persons being coincidental. At the same time, the story is about very real human failures. There is a very serious element to the story, and most of those who participated in readings of the script were surprised by the shift that happens in the course of the play. Because of the serious twist, some have classified it as a “drama-dy” or a “black comedy.”
Q: What inspired you to write the play?
A: A combination of things. Regionalist artists of the 20th century, like Iowa’s Grant Wood, rejected the art world of Europe and New York to paint everyday scenes of the midwest, and I was motivated to attempt a similar endeavor for the stage. I was raised in Des Moines, but have spent a good part of my adult life living in small towns in central Iowa. I’ve observed some universal aspects about small towns and rural Iowans which fascinate me. I have been amazed by the very real, very poignant stories of the people I have met and have learned about. In every small town you’ll find great stories that speak to what it means to be human. I wanted to give voice to these kinds of small town Iowa stories. I find that they aren’t often told in the theatre world.
Q: How long did it take you to write the play?
A: It’s been a five year process. I’d write part of it and then let is sit for several months. I completed the first draft a few years ago and have been in the process of endless rewrites. I presented it at the Missouri Playwrights Workshop at the University of Missouri. Several times I’ve gathered a group of friends and local theatre people in our home to read it outloud and then listen to their freedback. It has been an amazing journey. Many people have influenced the script in one way or another.
Q: Are you in the play?
A: No. I took a part in “Letters from Pella,” a one-act I wrote and which was produced for Tulip Time back in 2009, but was always sad that I didn’t get to watch the production as the playwright. With “Ham Buns and Potato Salad,” I wanted to simply observe the story as it goes from the page to the stage without having to be in it. We have an incredible, capable cast and crew and I’m loving what they are bringing to the characters and the story. It’s in good hands. I enjoy being able to sit back and watch it come to life.
Q: Is the play suitable for all ages?
A: It is definitely not written for children, and I would encourage parents of younger kids to get a babysitter and make the show a date night for mom and dad. Having said that, I think that most teens and even some pre-teens will be engaged by both the humor and underlying seriousness of it. As a parent, I would personally find the play to be an interesting conversation starter with my teen or pre-teen about some real life issues. If you want me to get specific, I think one character uses the word “hell” and that’s about it for swearing. If it were a movie I think it would get a PG rating for that one swear word and the underlying adult themes.
Q: What happens to the play after it is performed here in Pella by Union Street Players?
A: I’m not sure. I’m hoping that there might be interest in publishing it and will pursue those avenues. I would love to see it produced by other theatres. Who knows? All I can say is: Be sure to get your tickets and come out to see it. This could be the only time you’ll ever see it produced. I hope not, but that’s the way it goes. Watching what Ann Wilkinson, the talented cast, and stellar crew are doing with the script, I feel very confident that you won’t be disappointed.
“Ham Buns and Potato Salad” will be performed April 10-12 at 7:00 p.m. and April 13 at 2:00 p.m. on the stage of the Joan Kuyper Farver Auditorium in the Pella Community Center. Tickets are available for purchase on-line at www.unionstreetplayers.com/tickets or at the door of any performance. Tickets are $8 in advance for adults and $10 at the door. Tickets for students are $6 in advance and $8 at the door. Call USP’s virtual box office with questions at 641-204-1094.
The cast includes: Cyndi Atkins, Karl Deakyne, Doug DeWolf, Jana DeZwarte, Denise Gregory, Griffin Hammel, Mark Moreland, Arvin Van Zante, Wendy Vander Well, and Lily Villalobos.