UPON THE RELEASE of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964, New York Times critic Orville Prescott denounced the book as “the most insufferably pretentious and the most totally tiresome novel I have had to read in many years.” Harsh words, those, for a book that’s today widely considered the most important novel ever penned in these parts. But it wasn’t the regional setting—an Ouroboros-like landscape devouring itself with vines, mold and “rain chewing away the countryside”—that annoyed the East Coast carper; nor was it the frontiersmen protagonists, the Stampers, an Oregon Coast logging clan obsessed with their own narrowly construed self-interest. It was Kesey’s defiantly deranged prose: the jump-cut flashbacks, the points of view that shifted midsentence, the unmanaged crowd of minor characters.
The same stuff, in other words, that deeply beguiles Aaron Posner. When the New Jersey-based playwright and director premieres his new stage adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion at Portland Center Stage this month, the hope is that Kesey’s multivoiced narrative will translate brilliantly as live theater. The experiment will be a historic first for the 628-page epic (though Paul Newman directed and starred in a movie version in 1971) and a meeting with fate, of sorts, for Posner.
The son of a cognitive neuroscience professor, Posner grew up in Eugene in the late 1960s and early ’70s, just miles from Kesey’s Pleasant Hill farm. Kesey, the legendary Merry Prankster, attended shows at the Oregon Repertory Theater, where Posner worked as a kid. He lurked in Posner’s consciousness during his undergraduate years at Northwestern University, where Posner studied literature and performance under Frank Galati, the author of acclaimed adaptations of several great American novels. When Posner finally picked up Sometimes a Great Notion shortly after college, it was hardly surprising that he got an itch to make it his own.
But it took a decade to persuade himself that adapting a work he calls “sprawling [and] complex” was even possible. In about 1998, Posner called Kesey and spent “one fabulous day” on his farm—cutting hay, watching old film footage of the “magic” bus in which Kesey famously tripped the country, and dissecting the book—and then put the idea on hold as other projects intervened. Kesey died of liver cancer in 2001; four years later Posner, having been granted adaptation rights by Kesey’s widow, Faye, sat down in his parents’ yurt in Yachats (not far from where Kesey had written the famous novel) and sweated out the first draft.
“On most projects there’s a ‘eureka’ moment,” Posner says. “But this one… [has] been a wrestling process… a long, slow struggle, round after round.”
By necessity, the story lost a fair amount of weight on the mat. Posner, whose past scripts include an adaptation of Chaim Potok’s Jewish coming-of-age novel The Chosen, carved away characters, plot elements and background detail to focus on the core antagonism between the two main characters: Stamper scion Hank, a tough-as-nails lumberjack; and Leland Stanford Stamper, his touchy, intellectual half brother. When the union loggers of the fictional community of Wakonda, Oregon, go on strike, Hank—with his cousin and father—sign up to supply the needed logs. The family outfit then persuades long-lost Leland, fresh from a suicide attempt in Connecticut, to return home and help. Complications ensue when Leland takes a more than brotherly interest in Hank’s wife, and the logging operation goes awry.
That’s plenty of ground to cover in a two-and-a-half-hour play, and indeed, the script seems to gallop a bit hastily through its final scenes. Its way is only made rougher by the playwright’s quixotic attempt to do justice to Kesey’s powerful, disorienting prose. Posner, who estimates that about half of the script’s lines come verbatim from the book, retains much of the refractive quality of the original by employing a sort of Greek chorus of loggers to enact a variety of the book’s narrative voices.
But will the avowedly Kesey-esque spirit of the script bear positively on the play’s ultimate success? Adding to the suspense, Posner, who will direct the premiere, has the fortune—or misfortune—of addressing an audience whose feelings toward the historic work are far more ardent than those of Kesey’s early reviewers. All eyes will be on the rising curtain to find out whether this audacious experiment—a great notion, to be sure—delivers on its considerable promise.