at Cafe Voltaire

Seems every person I meet from Iowa is cheerful as a sunflower and sweet as summer corn. It amazes me. I always told myself they can’t all be so gosh-darn nice. There’s got to be some nasty people out there, I figured, and I was hoping that The Year Kathy Lost Her Ears, or Themesong of the Quad Cities would show me some.

But no. All the characters in this one-man show about a boy’s coming-of-age in the Quad Cities (two in Iowa, two close enough) are so sweet and innocent they’re almost silly. I think that’s what writer-actor Mark Kretzmann may have intended, but I’m not sure. Actually, I’m not sure what any of his intentions may have been for this hour-long series of vignettes. The Year Kathy Lost Her Ears has some funny moments, and it illuminates a year (1982) that most people overlook, but beyond that it doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot.

Maybe if I were as nice as all the Iowans I’ve met I wouldn’t complain. There’s a lot to like about Kretzmann’s performance: he’s not a bad actor, he plays an absolutely adorable young protagonist named Adam (as well as some other nice, interesting folks), and he has a great memory for what was going down in Iowa in 1982. But while Kretzmann has done a great job putting Adam into a social context, he’s done a less convincing job putting the context into 12-year-old Adam, who gets involved in some pretty fun experiences for a kid, though it’s never clear how he feels about them or how they affect his life.

In the Quad Cities in 1982 John Deere was permanently laying off hundreds of employees. Downtown shopping districts were dying. The local newscaster announced on prime-time television, “Yes, Gunnar Gustafson, I will marry you.” And Kathy Shaboom, an elephant at the zoo, lost her ears to a nasty case of frostbite.

These realities impinge on Adam’s world in the kind of small way that seems like a big way when you’re 12 years old. Adam’s best friend, Egg, has to move because his dad loses his job. A “Quad Cities Theme Song” is commissioned in hopes of boosting morale in the economically depressed region, and Adam auditions to be in the chorus of local kids who’ll sing it. Kathy Shaboom breaks through the fence after a zoo employee inadvertently sticks a cold thermometer inside her, and she remains at large in the town of Moline.

Things are happening for Adam, too. He develops his first crush, and has his first mono-sexual experience while looking at the ladies’ underwear pages in the J.C. Penney catalog. All these things can seem monumental to a 12-year-old. But their import to him as an adult and to us is never made clear. One episode follows another, and while together they have a sense of chronological continuity, they don’t tie together to present an overall picture of how Adam felt at age 12 in 1982 in the Quad Cities.

There’s virtually no conflict in The Year Kathy Lost Her Ears, and only one scene with any angst. I’m not saying all theater has to be full of fiery passion. Theater has every right to be sweet and nice, but sweet and nice are only the frosting on a cake. Without drama, this piece has no sense of purpose. Young Adam goes through all the motions of growing up, but not the emotions. He doesn’t learn anything about himself, about romance, about the economy. He doesn’t even learn anything about elephants. Neither does the audience.

This script has a lot of potential–at its best the play is endearing and heartwarming–but Kretzmann needs to give up the nice-guy approach and wrestle with some alligators. He delicately captures some genuine childhood moments, but like the 12-year-old boy he portrays he doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.