Kent Haruf's novel Plainsong won critical acclaim for its quiet beauty, and Eric Schmiedl's stage adaptation — miraculously — comes close to doing the original justice. This isn't one of those theater pieces that wows you on the spot; instead, Plainsong stays with you, settling slowly into your consciousness until it becomes part of the way you see the world. At least for a while.
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The story follows the intertwined lives of several people in a small town on the Colorado plains: a pregnant teenager who's thrown out of the house by her mother and eventually finds shelter on the isolated ranch of a pair of bachelor brothers as rough-hewn and unsure of how to behave in the world as they are intimate with the innards of their heifers; a high-school teacher whose wife has descended into a debilitating depression and who is raising their two young boys on his own; his brisk, lonely colleague, Maggie; a viciously disruptive student and his hostile, know-nothing parents; an old woman living alone in a smoke-filled, cluttered house who's befriended by the schoolteacher's boys. The plot has less to do with forward movement than with a kind of unfolding. As the boys explore their world and encounter its dangers, the ranchers carefully circle the teenage girl so suddenly a part of their home, the boys' mother descends further into darkness and their father struggles to keep going, you feel as if you're watching a moving, living frieze — and the deliberate flatness of the production, the absence of anything florid or effusive, convinces you of the truth of what you're witnessing.
Schmiedl has kept much of the novel's language, which remains a constant, steady pulse beneath the work, and the direction of Kent Thompson, who commissioned this piece for the Denver Center Theatre Company, is respectful and restrained. Gary Grundei's music, primarily violin and piano, provides a sense of muted yearning, and set designer Vicki Smith's sweeping blue sky dominates the action. On an almost bare stage onto which set pieces rise through trap doors as required, then vanish again, the actors seem small and their work devoid of ego.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 23, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
John Hutton's performance as schoolteacher Tom Guthrie is pitch-perfect; you believe entirely in his crabbed, hardened toughness, even as you sense his capacity for feeling. Kathleen McCall's Maggie is as controlled and careful as she is tender, willing to take risks to get what she wants. Lauren Klein, with her husky voice and splintered, matter-of-fact jerkiness, waving the oatmeal cookie recipe she saved decades earlier from the top of a box, makes memorable the old woman befriended by the boys. Much hinges on Mike Hartman and Philip Pleasants as the ranching brothers, and both are first-rate: funny, touching and stiffly, oddly dignified, with Hartman's unruly eyebrows waving like weeds and Pleasants's natural expressiveness colliding with his character's taciturnity. There are moments when one or the other edges toward cuteness or sentimentality, but both maintain their balance. Victoria, the pregnant teenager, is central to the action, but not fully fleshed out in the dialogue and Tiffany Ellen Solano makes her a slightly too generic girl in distress. The smaller roles — both as written and acted — suggest lives that began well before the events we're witnessing and that will continue long after we've left the theater. Randy Moore, in particular, rivets attention, both as Maggie's angry, terrified and demented father (there's a deeply moving moment when, having locked Victoria in the bathroom, he slides to the ground on one side of the door while she crouches on the other, both filled with despair) and as a doctor amazed by the brothers' bluntness and ignorance. All of these people have been shaped and hardened by their environment, and also made more essentially themselves. It's their ordinariness and specificity that make Plainsong's themes universal.
Although Plainsong makes for a long evening, it is elemental, rooted in our Colorado soil, a genuine song of the West, and one we'd never heard till now.