Bringing "Snow Falling on Cedars" to the stage, Book-It Repertory Theatre has stripped David Guterson's lyrical novel down to the trunk and limbs.

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Bringing “Snow Falling on Cedars” to the stage, Book-It Repertory Theatre has stripped David Guterson’s lyrical novel down to the trunk and limbs.

And this is not a bad thing.

Adapter-director Kevin McKeon has boldly and deftly preserved what is most dramatic in Guterson’s book (the murder-mystery plot), but also included enough of his well-wrought prose to give the story its sense of time and place, and its humanity.

The where and who are very germane, since Seattle-native Guterson’s international best-seller is rooted in local soil and anchored in nearby waters. And the show is extra timely, given the attention focused on the new Ken Burns film documentary on World War II, currently running on PBS.

The story takes place, between the 1940s and 1954, on the fictional isle of San Piedro, which Guterson based in part on Bainbridge Island.

Patchworked with strawberry farms, and populated mainly by farmers and salmon fishermen of Northern European and Japanese descent, San Piedro has maintained a delicate cultural and economic balance — which shatters due to pressures from without and within.

Like the novel, the play shifts with admirable ease between present-tense scenes and flashbacks. It opens during a 1954 murder trial, which is swiftly connected to the pre-war attraction between young Ishmael (Jonah Von Spreecken) and Hatsue (Mona Leach), an interracial infatuation kept secret from disapproving adults.

After Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, this fragile romance is tested and torn. Hatsue and the entire Japanese-American population of San Piedro (along with more than 100,000 other Japanese Americans) are deemed potential traitors to the U.S. and shipped off to desert internment camps.

Soon a heartbroken Ishmael joins the war and is severely wounded in combat. And, ironically, Hatsue’s brother and other Japanese-American youths prove their questioned loyalty to the U.S. by enlisting for combat duty also.

What is remarkable about McKeon’s concise, fast-moving retelling of the tale is how much he accomplishes in well-paced brush strokes. (The 1999 movie of “Snow Falling on Cedars,” by comparison, moves at a turgid pace.)

Accused of killing a fellow fisherman, and defended by a sympathetic Seattle lawyer (well-cast Eddie Levi Lee), Hatsue’s stubbornly proud husband, Kabuo (Andy Justus), expresses much with little dialogue.

So does Tim Gouran’s Carl Heine, the unassuming islander Kabuo is accused of murdering over a land dispute. And Kathleen Stoll, as Etta, Carl’s embittered mother, also conveys a lot in few words.

Etta’s anger at some of her Japanese-American neighbors is not pretty, but it’s comprehensible. In fact, “Snow Falling on Cedars” avoids serving up pure villains or victims: It’s a tale of admirable and flawed human beings, trying to get by and get along in very complex times.

From various perspectives, Guterson’s story unfolds a mystery while exploring how historical forces can splinter the longtime, peaceful coexistence of ethnically diverse communities — a phenomenon later repeated in Bosnia, Iraq and elsewhere.

McKeon and his fluent acting company do accentuate some aspects of the novel, and downplay others. Ishmael’s harrowing war ordeal is handled fleetingly. The motherly nagging of Kathy Hsieh’s Fujiko could be reduced, to allow more fleshing out of Von Spreecken’s brooding Ishmael.

Yet what is achieved is one of Book-It’s leanest, most dramatically focused adaptations of a contemporary literary work in some time.

With scant fuss, Corey Eriksen’s dirt-floored setting becomes a fishing boat, a courtroom, a tree. The acting is well-tempered and unshowy across the board, with special contributions from Leach (whose Hatsue grows from puckish adolescent to determined adult before our eyes) and from Justus as Kabuo.

The latter conveys both fierce, angry dignity and gentle warmth. Which in the world of “Snow Falling on Cedars” are not mutually exclusive.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com