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Originally published February 17, 2012 at 10:46 AM | Page modified February 19, 2012 at 8:47 AM

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Theater review

1920s Montana comes to life in Book-It's 'Prairie Nocturne'

A world-premiere staging of local author Ivan Doig's Montana-based tale "Prairie Nocturne" at Book-It Repertory Theatre.

Seattle Times theater critic

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

'Prairie Nocturne'

By Ivan Doig, adapted by Elena Hartwell. A Book-It Repertory Theatre production, through March 4 at Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $22-$44 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).
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THEATER REVIEW |

Any faithful adaptation of the Ivan Doig novel "Prairie Nocturne" should give us a sense of the big sky country Seattle novelist (and Montana native) Doig writes of so poetically, astutely and fondly.

And when the book's character Monty Rathbun sings, we should hear a resounding voice "as deep as a bronze bell."

Both things are achieved in Book-It Repertory Theatre's world-premiere dramatization of "Prairie Nocturne."

Adapter Elena Hartwell has her work cut out for her, harnessing an eventful yarn that spans so much time and territory, into an evening of theater. Though unwieldy at times, her script excels at retaining the book's language and the spirit of Doig's land and people.

Moreover, actor Geoffery Simmons persuades us, when after a big buildup he launches into an African-American spiritual, that Monty has a future on the world concert stage.

A potent singer, Simmons is also a charismatic actor who gives credence to the dramatic physical and emotional changes Monty undergoes, as a black man living in lily-white 1920s Montana.

Laura Ferri's staging of "Prairie Nocturne" prospers also from Myra Platt's gutsy, intelligent account of Susan, the strict and sensuous Helena voice teacher who dedicates herself to coaching Monty — even when it imperils them both.

Doig's 300-plus-page yarn packs in a great deal of incident and exposition, including the eventful back stories of Monty, Susan and Wes Williamson (Shawn Belyea) — a third key figure who is a wealthy rancher on the rolling Rocky Mountain Front where the story is set.

We get a too-fuzzy picture of the past love affair of Wes and Susan which ended before they team up to groom Monty for a singing career.

The affair was depicted in detail in "Dancing at the Rascal Fair," an earlier Doig novel that also delves more into the lives of Scottish immigrant schoolteacher Angus McCaskill and his wife, Adair (excellent Clark Sanford and Walayn Sharples). Here they play smaller roles as Susan's surrogate family.

Doig counterbalances the forces of progressive thought in this rural community, as exemplified by Angus, Wes and Susan, with the narrow minds and racist brutality of the local Ku Klux Klan. (Yes, the Klan was in Montana.)

As they move to remote outposts, Susan and Monty are at risk for merely fraternizing. And as their relationship develops, it's telling that attitudes toward racial mingling are nearly as threatening in New York City, where Monty flees for safety.

As the plot keeps a-boiling, the 2 1/2 hour show stays engrossing — due, in part, to a rich threading of live music that tells its own story of the American West.

Under the musical direction of Theresa Holmes, the cast performs African-American gospel tunes (sung by Simmons and Faith Russell, who shines as Monty's mother); snippets of Chopin (expertly played on piano by Platt); Scottish airs; American folk tunes.

Some songs are traditional; others have original lyrics by Doig, music by Platt and Holmes. All sound authentic.

At times, all the exposition does slow things down and confuse matters a bit. In the end, Hartnell's script rushes to pile everything in, as the story slants into melodrama and sentimentality. But, hey, if this were a 1930s Hollywood romance, wouldn't we root for the Katharine Hepburn and Paul Robeson characters to get together?

Also, Wes gets shorter shrift overall, and in Act 2 Belyea suffers for it.

Refinement is in order, but "Prairie Nocturne" ranks as another stirring example of Book-It's mission to make Western American literature sing onstage. And it gives a promising young actor-singer a chance to show what he's capable of.

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