Actor Geoffery Simmons has a voice like nothing you’ve heard before. When he opens his mouth for the first time in "Prairie Nocturne," Book-It Repertory Theatre’s new adaptation of the 2003 novel by Ivan Doig, Simmons does more than shake the proverbial rafters. His singing makes every hair on every head stand up straight, an electrifying chill zinging through the theater, from the front row straight to the back of the house.
"Prairie Nocturne" is not a musical. Rather, it’s a play about music and the often tragic struggle to coax it from deep within, when intolerance and isolation vie to break the heartiest of spirits.
Simmons’ character, Monty Rathbun, is one of the most intriguing seen on a Seattle stage so far this season. A black chauffeur tasked with ferrying his white cattle-baron boss around 1920s Montana in a butter-yellow Duesenberg, Monty has a past so fraught that even he doesn’t know the half of it. And he has a voice that can unleash the full power of any gospel hymn.
It’s a voice that his employer, Wesley Williamson (Shawn Belyea) wants to hone. To that end, Williamson seeks out Helena-based singing teacher Susan Duff (Myra Platt). His former lover, Susan is now a middle-aged spinster who spends her solitary nights scribbling away at an operetta that it seems she will never complete.
“I have the student of a lifetime for you,” Williamson tells Susan, accompanied by copious references to a backstory that the audience is never fully privy to. It includes a never-seen wife, a failed race for the governor’s office, World War I, and a family feud involving a couple of hot-headed Scottish immigrant dynasties.
This early scene in "Prairie Nocturne" is emblematic of the script’s fatal flaw, which Seattle playwright Elena Hartwell is never able to overcome. Though the book stands alone as a novel, the character of Susan first shows up at the midpoint of Doig’s earlier 'Montana trilogy,' in the book "Dancing at the Rascal Fair."
As a result, the play's audience is left as third wheel to Williamson and Susan’s private prattle, not unlike Monty and the luxurious Duesenberg.
For reasons never made entirely clear, Susan insists on giving Monty his singing audition out in the mountainous wilderness, necessitating a lengthy boat ride up a river, accompanied by Williamson, his housekeeper (Theresa Holmes), and her husband.
The oddity of this situation becomes moot as soon as Monty belts out the first notes of “Go down, Moses.” A thousand links of chain seem to clink between the poignantly simple notes of this slavery-era song, augmented by the equally stunning vocals of Faith Russell, who plays Monty’s deceased mother, Angeline. The musical interplay between the two, which occurs throughout the play, is a subtle yet deft means of both hinting at Monty’s past and revealing his present emotional life.
Susan agrees to teach Monty, but for further reasons that don’t quite jell, the lessons won’t take place at the Helena digs where she schools all her other students. Instead, the pair must trek out to her semi-abandoned family ranch, which has been carelessly tended by Angus McCaskill, her old school teacher (backstory, please!). As played by Clark Sandford, McCaskill has a fatherly affection for Susan and a Scottish brogue so heavy that deploying it seems to require the brute force reserved for a caber toss at the Highland games.
And by the way, how, in rural Montana of the early 1900s, did Susan come by her redoubtable and quite sophisticated vocal coaching techniques? Ach, ‘tis a mystery n’er to be learnt, as McCaskill might opine.
The true beauty of the play lies not in the logistics of the plot, but in the relationship between Susan and Monty. It blooms so slowly and subtly that when the world suddenly explodes around them, they come together naturally, their interior lives already perfectly in sync without any obvious authorial intervention.
“His color can get in his way that quick,” Susan says, finally acknowledging what everyone else has considered the key issue with the talented singer from the start.
But Monty is far more than the color of his skin or the quality of his voice. He’s a man who bravely endured a brutal goring by a bull that collapsed his lung. Decades after the fact, he simultaneously resents and idolizes his Buffalo Soldier father, who vanished abruptly from his life. And he is willing to face the dangers, both emotional and physical, of putting himself literally in the spotlight as a black man in early 20th-century Montana; a state that, even today, is more than 89 percent Caucasian and just 0.4 percent African American.
Inevitably, in the midst of the lovely Scottish ballads and haunting spirituals, two of Helena’s upright young businessmen can be heard to sing a sickeningly jaunty tune, “Show the world that you’re a man. Stand up and be counted! Go join the Ku Klux Klan.” The days of simple singing lessons are suddenly over for Susan and Monty. The stakes are now incredibly high.
The play’s most effective vehicle for moving the plot forward is the music. In addition to familiar period tunes, actors Platt and Holmes composed a number of songs that are performed on piano and stringed instruments by the multi-talented cast. As lyricist for these pieces, Doig more than does justice to his early-career foray into verse.
Out of the darkness at the outset of the play, Angeline sings, “Take a mouthful of stars. Set your ladder ‘gainst a cloud. Go hammer up heaven.” It is instantly clear that Doig hasn’t lost his poetic touch.
The production is remarkably polished, apart from some linguistic lapses on opening night. They began in Act Two, when Simmons stumbled over a tongue-twister quip about poker players that degenerated into gibberish. This somehow set off a chain reaction of similar stutters among his fellow cast members, which lasted for the duration of the play. Doig was in attendance, no doubt wincing.
If you go: Prairie Nocturne runs through March 4 at Book-It Repertory Theatre. $2 2-$44. For more information, visit www.book-it.org.