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Priaire Nocturne Raises Many Musical Spirits

Montana of the 1920s may be the land of wide open spaces, but in Book-It Repertory’s reverent and moving adaptation of Ivan Doig’s novel, Prairie Nocturne, the prairie town is crowded with ghosts.

For singing teacher Susan Duff (eloquently played by Book-It co-founder Myra Platt), the spirit of her crusty Scots father lingers, along with the memories of her dashed affair with wealthy ranch scion Wes Williamson.

The most arresting ghost is that of Angeline Rathbun, the late mother of Monty, Wes’s African-American chauffer. Through the actress Faith Russell’s strong voice, she haunts with the singing of spirituals, providing her son with rooting as he pursues his own musical goals.

The bond between Susan and Monty of song and ambition is the core of Doig’s story, set in a West whose frontier days have barely passed. And as lessons proceed and Monty improves, their relationship grows, prompting the ill-willed speculations of the townsfolk.

As Monty, Geoffrey Simmons provides a genuine tone of eagerness to practice his art while exercising a wariness of the racial tripwires that risk a snare. When Simmons unleashes the fullness of his rich vocal talents as the story permits, we have no doubt of Monty’s destiny.

But the hatred from others that Monty’s partnership with Susan sparks prompts the appearance of another specter, his former Buffalo Soldier father that had mysteriously vanished. It inspires his own dash to the east, finding success in the clubs of the Harlem Renaissance.

While that growing and troubled friendship centers the story, this is as much a tale of a place and its people, and director Laura Ferri largely meets the challenge of working on such a large canvas. Andra Bryn Bush’s set captures the rough-hewn spirit of Big Sky Country, which a large population of no-nonsense Scots and Swedes move across, shifting time frequently to tell the full story.

Not surprisingly, music weaves much of it together, not only with the spirituals that fuel Monty’s soul, but the songs of the Scottish “auld country” and Chopin’s piano meditations. These reflect the traditions that Montana’s people have brought from elsewhere, informing new creations, such as Susan’s own Prairie Nocturne composition.

The real ghosts that lurk over the production, however, are Ivan Doig’s other books.  The 2003 novel is the fifth in a long saga centered on the McCaskills (who make a welcome appearance here too), from the latter days of settlement, where Susan and Wes are also key characters. Adapter Elena Hartwell does a formidable job, but one inherently feels the weight of the epic backstory. For Doig’s fans, it’s a treat, while for others the dramaturgy in the lobby is essential.

Still, Book-It skillfully brings Doig’s lyrical text to the stage, parsing the rich story with elegance. It leaves you wanting more, rather than less, by the desire to start reading the rest of Doig’s novels.

Book-It Repertory’s “Prairie Nocturne” runs through March 4 at the Center House Theater in Seattle Center. Tickets: $22-$44; (206) 216-0833 or www.book-it.org.

Pictured above: Former ranch hand Monty Rathbun (Geoffery Simmons) is a hopeful singer who comes to Susan Duff for lessons. Photo by Alan Alabastro.

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