Riverside Theatre celebrates 40th anniversary with the first preview of Eden Prairie, 1971

Relocating near the epicenter of Iowa City’s arts scene, Riverside Theatre debuts their preview of Eden Prairie, 1971, written by New York playwright Mat Smart.


Jack McGuire

The stage is set before the first showing of “Eden Prairie, 1971.” Riverside Theatre in downtown Iowa City welcomes its inaugural live show on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Jami Martin-Trainor, Arts Reporter

On January 27, 1982, Riverside Theatre performed its first-ever show for a live audience. Forty years later, the theater has reopened its doors in a new location, celebrating the past and future, hoping to continue debuting new plays for decades to come.

With the new theater comes the potential for growth. Adam Knight, Producing Artistic Director of Riverside Theatre, said the relocation is an opportunity to expand, which has been a focus for the last five years.

“We see it as, you know, entering the arena,” Knight said. “We’re right down the street from FilmScene and Englert and Voxman. We’re right in the heart of where the arts epicenter is.”

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the theater’s first performance, the first preview performance of a new play titled Eden Prairie, 1971 debuted in Riverside’s new location in the Ped Mall. Taking place in Minnesota during the Vietnam War, the play tells the historical story of two people who are divided by ideology.

The program started with the character Pete, played by Kyle Clark, tapping on the window of someone’s backyard. Through indirect exposition and backstory, the audience discovers that Pete had escaped the draft for the Vietnam War with one of his friends, taking up residence in Canada.

Pete traveled back from Canada to Eden Prairie, Minnesota, to speak with Rachel, his old friend from high school. The play then proceeded to delve into a series of conversations between Pete, Rachel, and eventually included Rachel’s mother.

Eden Prairie, 1971 tackled an array of topics. Discussions of war and prevailing violence, political ideologies, the consequences of actions, and mortality as a whole, an encompassing picture is painted to shed light on the political, social, and ethical nuances that came during this time period.

Although the theater itself is relatively small, the condensed space allowed the audience to sit extremely close to the performers. That proximity gave way to authentic emotional connections, whether they be heartbreaking, humorous, or some combination of both.

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The actress who played Rachel, Christina Sullivan, said she was excited to perform at the new location. She said that the theater was a place for people to come together, which is important now more than ever.

“Art is one of the most centered things that make us humans, so it’s just a really important aspect of our community,” Sullivan said. “It’s really exciting that they have the space to explore different worlds in.”

The playwright of Eden Prairie, 1971, Mat Smart, has had his work performed at Riverside before. He said the public’s response to his work is part of what drew him back to local theater.

“I love it here,” Smart said. “I love making art here and I think the community really is supportive and inviting.”

With Eden Prairie, 1971 commemorating both the 40th anniversary of the establishment and the first live performance in their new location, Knight said Riverside Theatre had high hopes for the future.

“I’m looking forward to the arts,” Knight said. “I’m looking forward to that moment that the lights go down, and we take it from something that is living in our hands, that we’ve been working on in a space that we, and workers, and many people have been working to build, and we give it to the audience.”

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