In the summer of 1964, Oregon legend Ken Kesey rolled into New York in his Day-Glo converted school bus for the release of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, expecting to be greeted with open arms by the city's literary elite. He wasn't. Orville Prescott, writing for the New York Times, called the book—now widely considered better than Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—"the most insufferably pretentious and the most totally tiresome novel I have read in many years" and a "literary disaster."
Prescott and the rest of East Coast academia were stunned into idiocy by the enormity of Kesey's story. Notion is a tremendous novel that spans four generations and encompasses in its 640 pages the histories and struggles of an Oregon town, a troubled industry, a labor movement and one lunatic logging family, not to mention a pair of natural disasters. Its sheer bulk is terrifying.
You'd have to be crazy ambitious or just plain crazy to attempt to squeeze a work of art as big as Sometimes a Great Notion into a two-hour stage production. Aaron Posner, the writer and director of Portland Center Stage's world-premiere adaptation of the book, might be both. The Eugene native, who spends his time directing Shakespeare and literary adaptations out East, has narrowed the scope of his play to the fractious relationship between the brothers—one an effete academic, the other an uneducated hothead—that drives the story. But he still has a lot of bases to cover: namely a hillside, a house and a river. The challenge of bringing a chunk of rural Oregon to the stage fell Tony Cisek, a prolific set designer whose Portland work includes PCS's Anna in the Tropics in 2004 and last month's A Feminine Ending. "Aaron presented this as a design impossibility," Cisek told me after taking his first stomp around the finished set on the first day of tech week. "We face the ridiculous challenge of a logging sequence, and we need to accommodate interior spaces."
Cisek's strategy was to go for abstraction, and the result is imposing: a towering pile of green-washed timber—3,200 board feet of it, or a little less than an average load of logs, plus another 2,800 feet of compressed sawdust sheeting—that suggests both a hillside and a log jam, unmolested nature and finished product. Steeply angled platforms spiral crazily—or as crazily as Actors Equity allows—up to an unseen summit. Enormous beams hang over the stage and the first few rows "to get the gesture of falling trees." A drop, painted with a stark forest canopy, adds a small touch of realism to the set. "This is more fun," Cisek said. "If the play wants a naturalistic interior, it would be better to make a film."
Jim Ragland, the Seattle composer tasked with writing incidental music for the show, says his job is a little less daunting. "I just watch the action and move my hands around," he said over a hasty pre-tech lunch. "My biggest nemesis is getting organized and thinking too much." Ragland's guitar-and-banjo score grew out of themes he improvised while playing along to the first days of rehearsal. From there, he says, everything came together easily. "This is one of those shows where I loved the script, loved the director and loved the set," he said. "I don't know the last time I had a show that was so free from stress."
at Portland Center Stage's Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays, noon Thursdays. Closes April 27. $16.50-$61.50.