Currently celebrating its silver-jubilee season, Book-It Repertory Theatre has a simple yet formidable mission: “transforming great literature into great theater.” Is Charles Portis’ 1979 novel The Dog of the South great literature? (He’s best known for True Grit, twice adapted to film.) I can’t say, not having read the book, but Judd Parkin’s adaptation makes for a classic road-trip story—self-discovery mixed with self-effacing comedy.
We are placed immediately into the predicament facing Ray Midge (Christopher Morson). His wife Norma (Shannon Loys) has run off, ironically, with her ex-husband, Dupree (Joshua C. Williamson), who also happens to be Midge’s co-worker and childhood friend. A journalist and a student of history, Midge narrates these facts with a deadpan, dry tone, then puts his investigative skills to work and chases them. He isn’t after Norma, and he doesn’t care about Dupree; he just wants his beloved blue Ford Torino back. Eventually this quest will lead to British Honduras (now Belize).
En route, Midge visits historical sites of the Mexican Civil War, makes friends, starts fights, and maintains a healthy pill addiction. When he runs low on funds and high on loneliness, he helps Dr. Reo Symes (Jim Gall), a hapless, money-grubbing ex-physician, after his school bus-turned-camper (christened “The Dog of the South”) breaks down. What ensues is a sort of comedy of errors, laced with magical realism. Told in flashbacks as they’re enacted on stage, these picaresque vignettes are kept short and sweet. (Jane Jones directs.)
A reclusive, still-living Arkansan who published his last novel in 1991, Portis was a ’60s newspaperman who counted Nora Ephron among his colleagues and admirers. The Coen brothers’ True Grit remake helped revive interest in his small canon, and SNL alumnus Bill Hader recently optioned The Dog of the South. There are hints of darker, deeper wisdom in this deftly created, whimsical production that may yet emerge onscreen.
THE DOG OF THE SOUTH Center Theatre at the Armory (Seattle Center), 216-0833. $25. Runs Wed.–Sun.; see book-it.org for exact schedule. Ends March 8.