Crossing borders

Small-town life, political issues: Novelist Jim Lynch's refreshing story with complex characters adapted for Oly stage

February 25, 2011 

Seven months before it appears in Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, a theatrical adaptation of Jim Lynch's "Border Songs" is making its world premiere in Olympia.

Saint Martin’s University, in collaboration with Book-It, is presenting the play. The story was adapted by Olympia playwright Bryan Willis from Olympia novelist Lynch’s award-winning novel about the border between Canada and the United States – and about a 6-foot-8-inch dyslexic/autistic birdwatcher and border guard.

“I’m really drawn to the characters and how they represent the larger social issues,” Willis said. “It’s the very best type of political work, because it’s very personal.

“Jim has complex characters who are also rural,” he said. “Often, people from small towns or farms are portrayed as unintelligent or with a lack of complexity. It’s refreshing to see a book that treats dairy farmers and people in small towns with respect, and having grown up on a small farm in a small town, that’s one of the things that draws me to the book.”

Willis got a commission to adapt the script for Book-It. When Saint Martin’s theater professor David Hlavsa told Willis that he wanted to do a new play, Willis suggested “Border Songs.”

Hlavsa, who’s on sabbatical right now, also wanted to give students a chance to work with a professional director. The production will be directed by David Quicksall of Seattle, who also will direct the Book-It production opening in September.

The script condenses a complicated story with many characters and settings. Many actors play more than one role, and settings are often suggested simply.

“I like to invite the audience to engage and use their imaginations to fill in some of the gaps,” Willis said. “That’s something theater does better than film or television. A lot is done with sound and lights as well as a few props.”

Still, it’s a challenging piece to create on stage – not the least because of Brandon’s extraordinary height.

“Do you get a guy who is 6-foot-3 and cast everyone else under 5 feet tall?” the playwright said.

The actor they found for the part is 6-foot-61/2 Kyle Henick of Portland – and he has more than height going for him.

“He put in a really good audition, and the director said, ‘Yep, he’s our man,’ ” said Judy Turner of Olympia. Turner is the show’s producer and is playing Sophie, a mysterious masseuse who always knows everything that’s going on in Blaine, Wash., where the play is set.

The production also has to show or suggest Brandon’s Andy Goldsworthyesque outdoor artworks, his bird counting and an 18-wheeler that falls through the pavement, revealing a tunnel below and leading to the play’s big turning point.

And then there is the border itself, which was the first challenge for set designer Sarah Sugarbaker.

“We wanted to be able to help the audience understand where the border was and how important that arbitrary line is between the two countries,” Turner said. “For 70 percent of the play, it’s incredibly important to know that the border is there. We have poles or ropes or something else to show where it is. But when Brandon is out in nature, we’ve done away with that, because for Brandon, there really aren’t any borders.”

Border Songs

What: Saint Martin’s University and Book-It Repertory Theatre present the world premiere of a play based on Jim Lynch’s novel about a tiny Northwest community on the border between the United States and Canada.

When: 7:30 p.m. March 2-5. There’ll be a talk-back with playwright Bryan Willis and author Jim Lynch on March 3.

Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Tickets: $12 adults; $7 students, seniors and military; for the March 2 show, pay what you can; tickets available at the door

More information: www.stmartins.edu

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