After seeing Riverside Theatre's annual monologue performance Walking the Wire during its three-day run last weekend, I'm already looking forward to next year. Rarely is a collection of monologues presented locally (with the exception of the woman-power fundraiser The Vagina Monologues, which is structured more like a play), and the Iowa City theatre's Wire provides a unique opportunity for viewers to absorb an assortment of unpublished works presented by diverse individuals. While a few of the pieces were lacking in either character believability or author voice, most of the two- to 10-minute monologues were very engaging.

The beauty of monologues lies in the intimacy they allow between an actor and his or her audience. The sole performer has a unique task in this style of dramatic theatre: to completely embody the personality of the character being portrayed, to tell a story that reveals the character, and to force audiences to suspend disbelief for the short time he or she controls the stage. In monologues, the audience may be directly addressed or completely ignored, and the actor must make a clear choice how he or she will deliver the piece. So much of a monologue performance depends on achieving a precise blend of character believability with the story or message being presented.

When the actors presented, they were alone on a plain black stage, illuminated by a spotlight and using a single chair as a prop. The simple set and lighting choices drew the focus strictly upon the actor and achieved a greater sense of intimacy between performer and audience.

While most of the monologues were performed by actors cast into the roles, three were presented by their authors. When the writers performed, it often made for more accurate and believable interpretations of the pieces. "The Birthday Toast," written and performed by Charles Dufano, was about a gay man's struggle to call his mother on his birthday. Dufano had the advantage of having personal access to the source material and knew how he had envisioned the character when he wrote the piece, while most of the other performers worked from literary interpretation.

One of my favorite pieces, "Home Visit," written by Mary Vasey and performed by Jason Grubbe, focused on a blue-collar uncle attempting to sign the papers to admit his nephew to an art school. Though the seemingly simple character was a Midwestern man with a habit of drinking, smoking, and swearing too much, his story unfolds to reveal how deeply he cares for his family. This piece was powerful because at first Grubbe lightheartedly played up his character's backwoods behavior, recalling stealing cement lawn decorations and moving them to other yards. Then the action shifted, and the character revealed a memory about his brother, who protected him from an angry neighbor and ended up in prison for manslaughter. What began as a simple request to fill out art-school papers for his nephew turned into an explanation of a tragic situation.

Walking the Wire was not only an opportunity to see monologues performed, but also the final result of an annual contest. The 14 previously unpublished monologues were submitted by a variety of writers, ranging from high-school students to University of Iowa MFA students to adult playwrights with lots of theatre background, so there was a wide contrast among the pieces. Most of this year's works focused in some way on behavior and life in the Midwest. For example, "Mike" had a very down-home, Garrison Keillor feel as the performer narrated a segment of history in small-town America. "Crazy" took us through the thought process of a 24-year-old woman in a mental-health care unit who wonders what it means to be insane. "Clementine Dotson" focused on a coal miner's wife whose big mouth won her local fame.

The most successful pieces led the audience through a detailed and intriguing story or character revelation. I was eager to learn more about some of the characters' lives, like the tomboy Shux (Melissa Arnesen-Trunzo) and her pea-consuming habit in "Shux". I sympathized with the woman (Melinda Kay) who continually returned to her abusive husband in "Sort of Worth It," and I wanted to sit down for coffee with Clementine Dotson (Rachel Lindhardt).

Walking the Wire was a unique peek into the lives of 14 diverse and original characters. This year's collection included some dramatically realistic pieces, such as "Sort of Worth It" and the tear-jerking Alzheimer segment "Blink," though there were also some very poetic and theatrical works, including "How to Throw It All Away" and "Pelicans." Hopefully, innovative shows such as Wire will pave the way for more monologue performances in the future.

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