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The Stampers take the stage

Ken Kesey's classic premieres in a whole new way
by: l.E. BASKOW, Aaron Posner (left, in front of Michael Brophy’s painting of a logger, which is the poster art for the play) started dreaming of adapting Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” for the stage 16 years ago. The play about an Oregon family – including Hank Stamper (P.J. Sosko, top, in a pair of spiked logging boots) – premieres next month.

For anyone who loves Oregon and theater, the play based on Ken Kesey's novel 'Sometimes a Great Notion' promises to be a perfect rainstorm of art and regional history.

It's also a challenge for Portland Center Stage, which will give the play its world premiere starting next week in the Gerding Theater at the Armory.

'Not only is 'Sometimes a Great Notion' an essentially Oregon novel, it is as complex a psychological story as I know,' said Aaron Posner, 44, the play's director, who also adapted the book for the stage.

Even though the play takes place in an Oregon logging community, Portland Center Stage Artistic Director Chris Coleman believes it will resonate with local, urban audiences.

'For 150 years, Oregon had a resource-based economy, and that resource was timber,' Coleman said. 'We thought it would be a cool connection for the community if we could debut the play here.'

To Posner, the production of the play is the culmination of a 16-year dream. He first asked Kesey for his permission to adapt his novel for the stage in 1992. The conversation took place at Kesey's farm in Pleasant Hill, not far from Eugene, where Posner grew up.

'I called him, and he invited me to visit him at his farm. I thought the meeting would take about half an hour, but it lasted all day,' recalled Posner, the founding artistic director of Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company and current artistic director of Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J.

At the time of the visit, Kesey was one of America's best-known writers, famous not only for his writing but for his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and his adventures with the Merry Pranksters in the turbulent 1960s, as chronicled in Tom Wolfe's best-selling book 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.' Kesey died in 2001.

Posner describes the time he spent with Kesey as critical to his adaptation of the novel, a challenging book whose voice repeatedly switches between narrators, sometimes within a single sentence.

'When I talked with him, I saw the way he thought, the ways his eyes would light up when he was telling stories,' Posner said. 'The book has that same swirling narrative, and I've tried to retain that in the play.'

Posner employs six cast members as a kind of Greek chorus to play a variety of characters and share in the narrative.

'This is my way of allowing the various voices in the book to be heard,' he said.

Set in a small Oregon coastal town in 1961, the novel follows the struggles of the Stampers, a scrappy logging family that has survived for generations by living up to its motto, 'Never give a inch.'

When a union strike threatens to shut down all logging in the area, the family cuts its own deal with the mill, pitting itself against the rest of the community and pushing two brothers into conflict - Hank, the hard-living family leader, and Leland, the intellectual called back from college to help meet production deadlines. The clash between them builds until reaching an emotion-charged climax.

Posner views the brothers as two sides of Kesey's own personality.

'On the one hand, he was this muscular good old boy who used to wrestle and owned a farm,' Posner said. 'On the other hand, he was this well-educated, incredibly sophisticated intellectual.'

Posner also thinks the characters are deeply rooted in the West.

'When I think of the people who first came to Oregon, they're the ones who said, 'No, I don't want to stop here, I want to keep going.' They're the ones who wanted to go further,' said Posner, unintentionally referring to the name of Kesey's famous bus.

Coleman believes the issues in the novel still are relevant today.

'The basic questions are still there,' Coleman said. 'Is it best to be a go-it-alone, do-it-your-own-way individual? Or whether it's best for everyone to work together for the larger good of the community.'

Book showed working world

'Sometimes a Great Notion' was published in 1964, two years after 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' the widely praised first novel that catapulted Kesey to the upper ranks of American novelists. Within the story of the Stamper family, Kesey set out to capture and portray the appeal of an industry - logging - where families make a living by literally slashing their way through some of nature's most breathtaking and dangerous landscapes.

Showing the physical work is less important to Posner than capturing the narrative flow of the book. Although the wood-hewn sets on the stage are intended to capture the feel of mountain forests, no trees fall during the play. No one carries an ax, either.

By coincidence, TV audiences are just now getting an up-close view of the logging industry through 'Ax Men,' a new reality show on the History Channel that premiered March 9 and follows four logging crews through dangerous days in the forests of the Northwest.

Posner has watched the show but does not think it fully captures the logging experience.

'When you're in the woods at a logging site, the trees are overwhelming and there are these smells and sounds,' Posner said. 'It just doesn't translate well to the small screen.'

Playwright had industry help

To Posner, 'Sometimes a Great Notion' is a deeply personal work. He remembers starting to read the book in high school, although he found it too difficult to finish. After receiving a degree in performance studies from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Posner returned to Eugene briefly and took up the book again, this time completing it.

'It's not the kind of book you should start reading at 11 at night,' he said, 'but if you can get 100 pages into it, you'll never look back.'

As he was working on the adaptation, Posner repeatedly turned for help to his older brother, Owen, who owns a forest products company in Eugene. Owen introduced his brother to people in the logging industry, and arranged visits to mills and logging sites.

'Working with my brother on this has been great,' Posner said. 'It's the first time our worlds have overlapped.'

Posner originally obtained a commission from Seattle Repertory Theatre to produce 'Sometimes a Great Notion.' Leadership changes there delayed the debut until Portland Center Stage asked him to develop and present it here.

'Portland Center Stage is the perfect venue,' Posner said, praising the renovated Armory setting. 'Everyone here has been excellent to work with.'

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'Sometimes a Great Notion'

What: World premiere of Aaron Posner's stage adaptation of Ken Kesey's 1964 novel

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, also 2 p.m. Sunday, additional times later in run, April 1 to 27

Where: Portland Center Stage, Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, www.pcs.org

Cost: $16.50-$61.50


Kesey-related events spur fans further

Several organizations are using the premiere of 'Sometimes a Great Notion' to celebrate the life and works of Ken Kesey, perhaps Oregon's most famous writer. Free events include:

• Never Give a Inch: Kesey on Stage, Screen and Beyond

What: A symposium co-sponsored by Portland Center Stage and the Oregon Heritage Commission explores Kesey's works from literary and dramatic perspectives. Panelists include playwright-director Aaron Posner and author Ken Babbs, a longtime Kesey friend and Merry Prankster.

When: 2 p.m. April 5

Where: Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.

• Kesey and the Regional Spirit: Oregon in Life and Letters

What: Portland Center Stage and Ecotrust co-sponsor a noontime dialogue about Oregon history, forestry, and ideas of regionalism and the 'Oregon character.' Participants include historian and author William G. Robbins, novelist Craig Lesley and writer David Oates.

When: Noon April 6

Where: Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.

• Ken Kesey and Other Great Notions: A Book Discussion

What: David Sumner, director of Linfield College's writing program, and Wendy Willis, social sustainability program manager at Oregon Solutions, lead a discussion of 'Sometimes a Great Notion.'

When: 2 p.m. April 13

Where: Multnomah County Central Library, 801 S.W. 10th Ave.

• Sustainability and Regional Literature and Other Great Notions

What: Portland Center Stage artistic staff and members of the literary and sustainability communities discuss the importance of 'Sometimes a Great Notion' through the lens of regional identity, eco-criticism and Oregon environmental history.

When: 6 p.m. April 16

Where: Multnomah County Central Library, 801 S.W. 10th Ave.

- Jim Redden