“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” opening this weekend at Harlequin Productions, calls to mind the joke about an atheist with dyslexia who lies awake wondering, “Is there a dog?”
The play’s narrator and main character is a dog — but not just a dog. Lab-terrier mix Enzo (played by Harlequin regular Xander Layden, dressed in camel-colored sweater, slacks and cap, along with a dog collar) believes he’ll be reincarnated as a human and has been preparing for that — a task that makes him part philosopher and part anthropologist.
“He’s looking at the world from a different angle,” said director Linda Whitney. “Any time you have a surprising or unusual narrator, there’s a big attraction there.”
But just as Enzo is more than a dog, the play “isn’t just a dog story,” Whitney told The Olympian.
“It’s got a lot of charm and a lot of humanity,” she said. “There’s a whole drama going on with the humans in his life.”
The play, which debuted in 2012 at Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre, is an adaption of Seattle author Garth Stein’s best-selling 2008 novel about a wise dog who tries to help his master, race-car driver Denny Swift (Evan Sullivan, last seen in Harlequin’s “Cymbeline”), and family cope with crises of all kinds.
Enzo’s ability to help is limited by his inability to speak to the characters on stage. He addresses the audience directly throughout the play, sharing much wisdom in between embodying a dog. It’s a part that requires “a lot of focus — and yoga,” Whitney said with a laugh.
Stein has said that the book was inspired by the Billy Collins poem “The Revenant,” narrated by a dead dog.
“I tried to write a poem about a dog that’s completely unsentimental,” Collins said in 2012 at the Miami Poetry Festival.
“The Revenant,” in which the dog does little but complain, is funny, and “Rain” can be, too — though it’s more than that.
“There’s certainly laughter,” Whitney said, “but it’s looking at a modern American family in crisis and how the dog feels about that.”
Because it’s based on a novel, the play is complex, with a lot going on. Book-It adaptations are known for their faithfulness to the source material.
“People come and go, and there are 32 scenes in 23 locations,” Whitney said. Except for Layden and Sullivan, all of the cast members — including such familiar faces as Michael Christopher and John Serembe — handle multiple roles.
Newcomer Kaylee Heinz, 9, of Fort Lewis, plays Swift’s daughter, Zoe. Kaylee, who is home schooled, was last seen in Apple Tree Productions’ “Annie.”
This is only the second theatrical run for Myra Platt’s adaptation of the novel, which was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than three years. (A movie version of the novel is in the works, too, but no release date has been set.)
When she decided to stage the play, Whitney had neither seen the Book-It production nor read the book. She’d heard of it, though, and when she ordered the script from Book-It, she found it as appealing as, well, a dog.
“I like dogs,” she said. “I believe they’re sentient beings and I think a great many people do. You look into the face of a dog and you’re seeing life there and thoughts and feelings.”
‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’
What: Harlequin Productions presents an adaption of Seattle author Garth Stein’s best-selling novel about a dog’s eye view of human lives.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, plus March 7-10, 15-17 and 22-24 with matinees at 2 p.m. Sunday, plus March 11 and 18
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
Tickets: $35 general admission, $32 for seniors and military, $20 for students and youth. For the March 7 performance, pay what you can.
More information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org
Meet the author: Stein will attend the opening-night performance on Thursday. A champagne reception will follow.
Also: Despite the canine character, the comic drama is aimed at adults. The theater deems it appropriate for all ages with guidance.