First, respect: It takes balls to adapt a book like Ted Kooser's Local Wonders for the stage—especially as a musical, like Virginia Smith and Paul Amandes have done in this show receiving its local premiere at Chicago Dramatists.
Like Henry David Thoreau's Walden or Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Kooser's 2002 book strings together observations of the writer's immediate environment, which for Kooser is rural Nebraska. The only obvious organizing principle is the passing of a single year's seasons, and the point is that if you think nothing happens during that time you're just not paying attention. Any corner of the world, at any moment, closely observed, Kooser shows, is full of incident and charged with meaning.
The perspective is bracing, and the structure, like a sonnet, sets a challenge to the writer that, when artfully met, provides its own pleasures to the reader. But the book doesn't offer ready-made dramatic material.
Raising the bar higher for any would-be adapters, Kooser refrains from the bold gestures that give his predecessors their compensatory punch. The first chapter of Walden is packed with sweeping social critique and tart contrarian zingers, bringing to mind Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde. Dillard supplies chiaroscuro melodrama—her first paragraph gives us blood, piss, and a bare-chested woman.
Kooser, on the other hand, highlights the quiet comedy of midwestern reticence and modesty. For better and worse, he's got as much in common with Garrison Keillor as he does with Thoreau. "Contrary to what out-of-state tourists might tell you," he writes, "Nebraska isn't flat but slightly tilted, like a long church-basement table with the legs on one end not perfectly snapped in place, not quite enough of a slant for the tuna-and-potato-chip casseroles to slide off into the Missouri River."
I like a tuna-casserole reference as much as the next guy—and Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, has a deft touch with that kind of thing—but there had better be something more piquant in store to sustain an entire book.
And there is. Local Wonders is ultimately about a prolonged confrontation with death. Kooser wrote it after recovering from cancer—a squamous-cell carcinoma that started on the tongue and, by the time his dentist caught it, had spread to the upper lymph nodes. He uses the aforementioned reticence to good advantage, withholding specifics about his ordeal in a way that injects suspense and even dread into his meandering chronicle. His opening chapter, "Spring," ends with a sighting of turkey vultures and the recollection of a previous sighting, two years before, as he rode home from cancer surgery. It's the first mention of his illness, and also the last until the book's close, when he sums up his struggle in less than four pages.
Kooser's circumspection regarding his own troubles draws attention to the sickness and death around him (Grandma Kooser, Uncle Tubby), alluded to ever more frequently as the book goes on. When Kooser finally does reveal the details of his bout with cancer, which brought on a severe case of writer's block that robbed his day-to-day life of its meaning even as it threatened his future, the passage has a confessional power.
The stage adaptation project started with Smith, who discovered Kooser's book after moving from Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska. She enlisted Amandes to write music, and he ended up pitching in on the script as well. Amandes plays Kooser in this production, with Anne Hills, a onetime Chicago folk scene fixture, playing Kooser's wife and other characters. Smith directs.
Most of the songs are adapted from Kooser's poetry, pulled from collections stretching back to 1994, and the music is folksy and spare. Hills and Amandes pick up acoustic guitars whenever the score requires, with Hills doubling on banjo and harmonica and pianist James Robinson-Parran sitting just offstage. The storytelling is similarly unadorned: Amandes and Hills deliver their lines in direct address to the audience.
The show is clearly a labor of love. "[A]lmost from day one," Smith writes on the show's website, "I wanted to share Ted's insights and observations in the way I share stories—on the stage." Smith and Amandes have since spent more than five years on the project, and they recorded the songs on a CD featuring Hills in 2008. So it's a bummer to report that Local Wonders the musical inspires more impatience than wonder. There's competence aplenty and a few charming moments, but to pull this project off would've required brilliance, and that isn't forthcoming.
Smith and Amandes kneecap the strongest parts of the book. They use the cancer story as a frame, for instance, telling it in bits and pieces throughout the evening. That's a perfectly reasonable choice—certainly the most obvious way to create a narrative throughline—but it undoes the tension that Kooser's eerie silence creates.
Even more damaging is the way the production undercuts those moments when Kooser suddenly allows friction and fright to break through his genial reserve. Kooser's memory of his first taste of sex, as an 11-year-old child, is sudden, a little violent, and kind of hot. Amandes and Hills play the moment for laughs—an old married couple chuckling about how once upon a time sex held power and mystery, heh, heh, heh.
Hills is a rock-solid musician and a sweet singer, and her quick takes in various roles, including Kooser's dentist, oncologist, and—particularly—the villain from a book Kooser loved as a child, are light and playful. But as the poet's faithful wife, she's reduced to smiling sweetly and batting her eyes, which is painful to watch.
The show hits its emotional climax, such as it is, with Kooser melting down at the sight of those turkey vultures awaiting his return from surgery. But instead of dealing with Kooser's confrontation with death, the show focuses on his wife's annoyance at him for being such a petulant crybaby. I'm split on this moment: It works fine, and the wife is overdue for a display of self-respect. Yet it also epitomizes the low emotional stakes Local Wonders has been playing for the whole evening.
If you want something with more bite, read Kooser's book. And if you're into folksy observations about Midwestern life set to acoustic guitars, there's always A Prairie Home Companion.