“In Mongolia, when a dog dies, he is buried high in the hills so people cannot walk on his grave. The dog's master whispers into the dog's ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life. Then his tail is cut off and put beneath his head, and a piece of meat or fat is placed in his mouth to sustain his soul on its journey; before he is reincarnated, the dog's soul is freed to travel the land, to run across the high desert plains for as long as it would like.
I learned that from a program on the National Geographic channel, so I believe it is true. Not all dogs return as men, they say; only those who are ready . . . I am ready."
-- Enzo, from The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Don: "Oh, no," I thought, "Not another talking dog." I hated the play Sylvia by A. R. Gurney and haven't ever had the urge to watch Wilbur starring Elijah Wood on TV. Spare me.
I'm a convert. The Art of Racing in the Rain is the story of Enzo, an old dog who looks back on his life. It was charming . . . thoughtful . . . funny . . . and wonderful.
Peg: Enzo's knowledge of the world comes from his nose, Denny Swift (Eric Riedmann), his owner, pal, and best friend, and TV, especially documentaries.
Don: When Denny (Eric Riedmann) was about 19 or 20, he decided he wanted a dog to share his life. He went to a farm that had puppies for sale and Enzo (David S. Hogan) was the one that captured his heart with his "Pick me, pick me!" puppy eyes and pleas.
Peg: All the puppies looked exactly like a family dog pile, as if they were young kids sprawling and leaping on Dad who’s asleep on the couch. They were lying on each other, panting and wriggling their bodies, especially Enzo with his hyperactive tail wagging, leaping within the kennel and generally acting like a creature in love with life, movement, and most importantly, Denny.
Don: Peter Jacobs played the farmer that was selling the puppies and I loved the way he held up an empty baseball cap and said, "I was thinking of keeping that one myself." Denny places money in the cap and leaves with his new friend.
Peg: The author, Garth Stein, is from the Seattle area, and was even at the premier. I love the way he mentions different Seattle and northwest locations throughout the play. After seeing the play I bought a copy of the book, which has been a New York Times best seller since it was published in 2008. I look forward to reading it. Book-It co-founder Myra Platt adapted the play from Stein's book.
Denny wants to be a race car driver. As he watches racing movies and ESPN racing events he explains the ins and outs of driving. Enzo loves Denny and through him, the world. He treasures these moments together. Enzo says, "He talks to me! He talks to ME!"
Denny shares his thoughts and his experiences as he begins to move up the racing ladder. When he brings home Eve, Enzo watches them making love. When they marry and have a baby girl, Zoe, Enzo is told by Eve that he must protect her. This is serious business for Enzo. He protects all three of them, but worries about a certain whiff of danger from Eve.
Don: I love that part. Dogs can be trained to detect cancer and disease. And when Enzo smells something like rotten wood, we know that something bad is going to happen.
Eve has a brain tumor. Her parents take her and Zoe to live them on Mercer Island, where they can better look after her during her illness and while Denney travels around racing. Enzo calls the mother (Eleanor Moseley) and father (Peter Jacobs, again), The Twins (they usually dress alike). Once Eve dies, the parents demand custody of the child. Enzo then identifies them as The Evil Twins.
Denny's attorney says the parents have no hope of gaining custody, until a trumped up charge of rape is made against Denny. He can either sign a release of parental custody and the legal proceedings of rape will go away or he can fight the suit and the law and possibly win or possibly go to jail. As Denny begins to sign his rights away, Enzo grabs the legal papers and jumps out the apartment window into the yard below, where he first digs a hole and then pees on the documents. Denny agrees.
Don: One of my favorite moments is when Enzo explains his re-imagining of the final court scene with him testifying via the help of a Stephen Hawking voice-box and Denny's attorney as if he were Peter Falk as Columbo. The absurdity works. Truth will out.
Peg: I especially loved that all the stage hands were dressed in pit crew coveralls and baseball caps. This visual pun reinforced Denny’s and Enzo’s love of racing and Denny’s specialty of taking advantage of the rain to become the front runner when racing in the rain. The racing coveralls and the” Evil Twins” (Eve’s parents) dressing in almost identical outfits were a great joke by Pete Rush.
David S. Hogan did a masterful job of maintaining Enzo’s doggy movements, from a wriggling puppy to an old dog who wets the floor when hip dysplasia keeps him from getting up. I can’t imagine what extensive physical training and strength it takes to be on his knees and knuckles for such an extended time. Hogan acted so like a dog.
Apparently, many Book-It staffers bring their dogs to work; and that gave director Carol Roscoe plenty of opportunity to expertly visualize and transform a human into a dog, albeit a very intelligent and self-aware dog.
The stage setting consisted of a flat space and two platforms, where the furniture was moved around. The scene stealing stars of the design were the horizontal, countryside landscapes around the walls: lovely images of low hills, trees, grass and blue sky that were revealed, or hidden, by lighting – very restful and they repeat Denny’s in-the-moment consciousness when racing.
Don: I switched seats before the second act and even though I was only elevated by one row, it gave me a better look at the floor of the set. In the second act Denny begins to win more races and at times the lighting is changed just enough to bring out tire tracks criss-crossing the stage. I thought to myself, "How could I have missed that?"
Peg: Does Denny continue to race? Does Enzo ever get to Mongolia? Well, the ending is both sweet and tearful. We enjoyed the premier and apparently so did everyone else in the house. Every seat was emptied for the standing ovation. This is a great production from start to finish. See it more than once and cherish the memory.
The Art of Racing in the Rain plays through the 13th of May, 2012 at Book-It Repertory Theatre. Call 206-216-0833 for tickets or visit them online.