A review of Myra Platt’s adaptation of David James Duncan’s 600-plus-page “The Brothers K,” a two-part dramatization at Book-It Repertory Theatre that is a pretty tight squeeze.
How do you turn an epic American novel, brimming with characters and plotlines, sociology and atmospherics, into a play?
Book-It Repertory Theatre has done it before, impressively, in captivating, supersized stage versions of John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules” and, more recently, Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
Now the company is attempting a similar feat with a two-part dramatization of “The Brothers K,” the hefty, picturesque novel by Portland-born Montana resident David James Duncan. (Duncan’s earlier novel “The River Why” was previously staged by Book-It.)
‘The Brothers K’
by David James Duncan, adapted by Myra Platt. Part 1 and 2 run in repertory through June 26 at Center Theatre, Seattle Center. (Schedule, ticket prices and reservations: 206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
Adapted and directed by Myra Platt, “The Brothers K” features 26 adept, energetic actors covering 83 roles. The title is a baseball pun and an homage to Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” another four-brother epic.
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But Duncan’s tale of a quirky, baseball-loving family in Camas, Wash. (a mill town east of Vancouver) is a tight squeeze, theatrically. The two-fisted opus is rich in colorful personalities, crises and antics. With flamboyant comic flourishes and sentimental fervor it tracks the Chance clan, including four brothers who come of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s – while it ruminates on romantic and familial love, faith vs. reason, war and protest, and the art of pitching sliders and curveballs.
The 645 pages of “The Brothers K” could likely fill a 10-part TV miniseries, let alone about six hours of theater. (Parts 1 and 2 can be seen separately, or in same-day “double header” performances.)
Book-it’s treatment is certainly ambitious, but also uneven. Giving some sections of the book short shrift while lingering on others, it can be gripping or tedious, exciting or repetitive, melodramatic or heart-piercing while aiming to keep the decade-spanning plot pumping without sacrificing characterization and emotion.
Essentially, Hugh “Papa” Chance (Gavin Hoffman) is a millworker who lost his shot at pitching in the big leagues after an injury. His marriage to Laura (Alexandra Tavares) is a love match that produces four sons and two daughters. It’s a boisterous and close-knit brood that worships at the shrine of baseball like their dad.
But a rift between Laura’s Seventh-day Adventist faith and Hugh’s agnosticism intensifies as their children grow up. Laura’s fire-and-brimstone beliefs become fanatical, dividing the family into zealous believers and rebellious abstainers.
Part One of the production (“Strike Zones”) has a sluggish wind-up, until Hugh gets his pitching mojo back throwing heaters in a backyard shed, and the elder boys’ paths diverge in the gyrating 1960s.
Emblematic of the times, Everett (Christopher Morson), the oldest, becomes a firebrand antiwar activist and dazed draft dodger. Scholarly Peter (Trevor Cushman) embraces Eastern religion. Church-loving innocent and family clown Irwin (Riley Shanahan) fails to get a religious deferment, and is drafted to the jungles of Vietnam. Kincaid (Spencer Hamp), the youngest, stays home to finish school. (He also narrates the saga.)
Giving each of these journeys their due, while also tracking the parents’ rocky marriage, is an ungainly and at times frenetic business. What galvanizes the superior Part Two (“The Left Stuff”) are Irwin’s tragic combat experiences and PTSD breakdown. The latter brings the Chances, and their surprising allies, on a far-fetched but entertaining and moving rescue mission.
The play rushes through to the final innings, leaning heavily on the literary device of letters to get to a contrived but touching finale of family unity.
As a show based on a novel that nearly defies adaptation, “Brothers K” doesn’t have the most efficient or elegant game plan, nor consistent emotional power. But Platt expertly maneuvers her large cast through the yarn, leavening the Chances’ sorrows with Duncan’s robust comedy. And though one hesitates to single out individual actors in a valiant ensemble effort, Hoffman as the wise and crusty patriarch, Shanahan as goofy, saintly Irwin and Tavares as a fiercely pious yet loving mother, hit it out of the park.