The high plains may not appear as dramatic as the mountains beyond them, but hidden amid this seemingly homogeneous sea of grasses and grains lies boundless character, and it’s this character that is explored in Eric Schmiedl’s stage adaptation of Kent Haruf’s bestselling novel, “Plainsong.”
Echoing the liturgical genre from which its title is partially derived, “Plainsong” expresses its reverence for everyday joys and trials in a steady, unrushed manner. It is a paean to the strength of a place and the people who live there, in this case Holt, Colo. — a mythical everytown reflective of the small communities spread across the oceanic heartland of the U.S.
Helmed by Denver Center Theater Company artistic director Kent Thompson, “Plainsong” is a robust slice-of-life epic structured as a classic three-act drama, with a fertile narrative and earthy characters whose perseverance echoes in the audience’s emotions and imaginations.
Scribe and helmer preserve the narrative scope and emotional arc of the novel by effectively mixing Vicki Smith’s cinematic backdrops and gem-like settings (brought to life by Don Darnutzer’s lighting) with shared monologues by the ensemble. These bridge the action, building on characters and sub-plots economically introduced in the staccato first act.
Despite its near three-hour length, auds likely will find the play as engaging as the original book, avoiding sentimental traps while it mines the novel’s wry situational humor and sagacious perspective. Seven principal characters drive a script requiring 21 actors in 36 roles.
Orphaned as teenagers, elderly brothers Raymond and Harold McPherson (Mike Hartman and Philip Pleasants) survive as cattle ranchers, 17 miles west of town. Veteran thesps Pleasants and Hartman form a fraternal bond at the emotional center of the play, strengthened alternately by their kind and comical qualities.
The brothers are asked to take in Victoria (Tiffany Ellen Solano), a displaced pregnant 17-year-old school girl. Solano’s shy, introspective portrait charms the aud as well as the old fellows.
In an intersecting storyline, high school history teacher Tom Guthrie (John Hutton) is left to take care of his two sons, 10-year-old Ike (Gabe Antonelli/Ian Frazier) and 9-year-old Bobby (Keean Johnson/Jeremy Singer), when his depressed wife leaves town. The boys do an admirable job with demanding roles, while Hutton taps the rural integrity of the American ethos, giving us a scrappy Tom who expects a lot from his boys and his students.
Fellow teacher Maggie Jones (Kathleen McCall) has eyes for Tom. McCall, along with Lauren Klein, as the grandmotherly Mrs. Stearns, provide thoughtful maternal components to the agrarian storyline.
Panoramic settings, compelling conflicts, and uplifting denouement hold promise of legit afterlife as well as bigscreen opportunities. As Haruf notes in a text accompanying a concurrent Peter Brown photo exhibit (they collaborated on a recent book, “West of Last Chance”), “You have to know how to look at this country. You have to slow down. It is not pretty, but it’s beautiful.”