Review: Prairie Nocturne by Ivan Doig. Adapted by Elena Hartwell. Original Music by Theresa Holmes and Myra Platt. Directed by Laura Ferri. With Myra Platt, Geoffrey Simmons, Shawn Belyea, Clark Sandford, Joe Ivy, Sylvie Mae Baldwin. Now through March 4, 2012 at the Center House Theatre/Seattle Center.
Ivan Doig has earned a reputation as one of this country’s greatest “Western” writers and the Seattle area based author has earned acclaim for a number of his works many of them centering on his home state of Montana and the pioneering spirit of that state. One of his more popular works, “Prairie Nocturne” has been adapted by Book It Repertory Theatre, with the author’s permission and it’s a smart choice for adaptation. “Prairie Nocturne” takes place in the 1920’s/30’s and concerns the relationship between the middle aged music teacher Susan Duff and her latest pupil: an African American chauffeur named Monty Rathbun. To complicate matters, Monty is employed by Wesley Williamson, a powerful land baron and past lover of Susan who still has strong feelings for her. Weaving through the story of Monty’s musical education are a number of plot threads involving various members of the local community; Monty’s memories of his dead parents and the mystery of his father’s death; and the threat of reprisals from the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan who object to a white woman teaching a black man. Complete with original music composed for the production, “Prairie Nocturne” fascinates not only for its intricate plot and colorful characterizations, but its sense of time and history. It’s a lush, densely plotted trip to a fascinating era of American history.
“Prairie Nocturne” benefits from a strong adaptation by Elena Hartwell and its original music by Theresa Holmes and Myra Platt. The music is lovely and appropriate for the time period of the play; it doesn’t feel like new music at all. Ms Hartwell does an admirable job with condensing the thickly plotted novel; “Nocturne” has a lot of characters and a lot of plot threads and especially in the first act, the pacing and emotion created are lyrical and majestic. It’s unfortunate that the second act of “Nocturne” doesn’t quite live up to the first half; the plot gets rushed along to a point you’re not sure where you are or what’s going on and I suspect part of that can be attributed to the novel, (which I haven’t read). Act Two of the play does get a bit soap operatic at times and the location of the play starts to move around to other locales, including the long final segment set in Harlem, and much of the lyricism and romance of the first act is lost. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in plays; second acts are frequently weaker than the first and I suspect in this case it can be attributed to the original source material and a desire to keep as much as the book as possible. That’s not to say that the book is inferior in ITS second half, only that adapting material from another medium is very difficult. What works on a page doesn’t necessarily work on a stage. I think Ms Hartwell has done a fine job with “Prairie Nocturne”, but the second act could use some pruning and the through line could be strengthened.
Much could be said for Laura Ferri’s excellent direction as well with a powerfully strong sense of timing and staging in Act One that tends to diminish in the second act as we move about in time and location. An awkward use of a platform piece and some very obtrusive cloth panels to indicate the Harlem location could also be reduced or even eliminated. They tended to be distracting at times. But, the strengths of Act One almost override the weaknesses of Act Two.
Design wise, the costumes of Megan Gurdine were superb with a fine detail to the time period and the characters wearing the costumes. I wasn’t a huge fan of Andrea Bryn Bush’s set…that endlessly shuffled about platform was annoying and an odd platform at the rear of the stage to indicate…mountains? the heavens? was also a bit…plunked looking. The Center House Theatre space is an awkward space to design for…it’s low and broad and the designers who have to work around those limitations always have my sympathies (to be honest, I’ve never been blown away by a set in that space…)
The performances are very strong in “Prairie Nocturne”. Book It co-founder Myra Platt makes for an excellent lead as the middle aged music teacher who just might be getting one last chance at romantic happiness. It’s a strong and determined performance of a strong and determined character. Equally fine are the two men in her life…both Shawn Belyea as her long lost love Wesley, and Geoffery Simmons as her pupil Monty are commanding and capable leading men. Mr. Simmons has the tougher of the two roles; Monty has a lot of ghosts and baggage in his life AND a lot of singing to do. Mr. Simmons has a beautiful singing voice and brings passion and wounded fury to both his singing and his acting. It’s a lovely, nuanced performance.
In support we get excellent work from an ensemble that includes Clark Sandford and Walayn Sharples as some very believable Scottish neighbors of Susan’s and Joe Ivy as a number of characters including a crusty but crafty handy man and Susan’s father. The entire ensemble was excellent, with many of the actors doubling as the musicians for the musical moments.
A major crowd pleaser was the performance of Faith Russell as Angeline, Monty’s ghostly mother who appears at the periphery of most of his scenes. The actress has few lines, but her presence manages to be commanding and haunting in all her appearances. But, it’s a flashback scene where Angeline and a young Monty are welcomed into a white only church that really showcases Ms Russell’s talent. The actress commands the stage as she sings and preaches her way into acceptance by a congregation that had originally been very reluctant to admit her. It was a show stopping moment and the highlight of this production.
“Prairie Nocturne” is a lush, sweeping panoramic love story that at times borders on the overly romantic and melodramatic. It frequently wanders over into “The Thorn Birds” territory or even an old 1950’s Douglas Sirk tearjerker like “Magnificent Obsession” or “All That Heaven Allows”…and, there’s nothing wrong with that. It has a lot of passion and heart, and at least in the first half of the play, the feel of life in the Big Sky Country of Montana. The second half falters somewhat, but over all “Prairie Nocturne” is a fascinating story to dive into. Act One gets a solid “A” and Act Two gets a “C+” but that averages out to a “B” which makes it worth checking out.
Added Note: My elderly eyes apparently were NOT focused when I wrote this review and using the program to get the names of the cast. I stupidly attributed TWO of the actors to incorrect roles, (or vice versa). Apologies to Ms Russell and Ms Sharples. It has been corrected!