The Ivan Doig novel “Prairie Nocturne” has been put to music, metaphorically and literally at the Book-It Theatre.
The hinge of the story is Susan Duff (Myra Platt), a 40-year old voice teacher who was the lover of Wes Williamson (Shawn Belyea), the married, Great War hero, local cattle baron and Montana political powerhouse. At midnight, Wes comes to Susan’s Helena home, lets himself in with a key although he has not been there for four years, and presses Susan to give voice lessons to Monty Rathbun (Geoffery Simmons), ranch hand, former rodeo clown and now Wes’ chauffeur. Recognizing his raw talent, Susan takes Monty on as a student, although she has to instruct him in secret. Monty is a black man and the Ku Klux Klan is active in Helena. (According to Wikipedia, 1924, the year this story begins, was the year of peak Klan membership.)
The production begins with Angeline Rathbun (Faith Russell) singing a “spirit” song as she stands on the back of the stage. She is the stately, dignified voice of the past, calling up the Rathbun family history with her heartfelt singing. Her son Montgomery, Monty, calls his mother Angelmomma, and indeed, she sings like an angel.
Music is a prominent part of this Book-It rendition. The “spirit” songs of Angelmomma and Monty, as well as the bluegrass-type incidental music while parts of the stage were moved around added up to a veritable musical afternoon. Original music by Theresa Holmes and Myra Platt featured the actors as musicians. Sylvie Mae Baldwin, Flossie the first voice student and part of the ensemble, played the violin; Theresa Holmes, Mrs. Gustafson and other parts, played the piano; Shawn Belyea, Wes Williamson, played the trumpet and trombone; Evan Crockett, Bailey the guard hired by Wes Williamson to protect Monty and Susan during his training, played the bass fiddle; and other performers were also musicians: Mark Tyler Miller, Clark Sandford, and Walayn Sharples. In addition to the musicians, we also enjoyed the singing of Faith Russell as Angelmomma and Myra Platt as the teacher Susan Duff, who composed the "Prairie Nocturne", as well as played the piano.
The set design by Andrea Bryn Bush was fairly spare, just suggestions that became spaces through the actors’ conversations. The actors moved the platforms around, and with the simple additions of a table and chairs, become the Duff homestead, the boat where Monty sang on the river in a cliff-sided ravine, a bank, a Harlem street and apartment, and, finally, Carnegie Hall. The one platform with Susan Duff’s piano stayed put.
The costumes by Megan Gurdine were also fairly simple but plenty apt. Susan wore beautiful slim, green skirts with two or more tops and various accessories to give evidence of the passage of time. Wes Williamson had an overcoat and hat as well as suits to show his wealth and expectations. Monty wore a chauffer’s livery, work clothes and, finally, a well fitting tuxedo. The other characters wore mostly plain work clothes or dresses. They were not the wealthy.
“Prairie Nocturne” was an intriguing story of a woman recognizing her worth in terms of a beloved married man and a man of a different race. This was a most wonderful musical performance as well as a well-acted story of the scourge of Ku Klux Klan racism and its affect on people’s lives. It is well worth seeing.
“Prairie Nocturne” plays through March 4 at the Seattle Center House Theatre, on the first level, the same floor that's home to the Seattle Children’s Museum. For tickets and information, go online to www.book-it.org or call the box office at 206-216-0833.