Sometimes a Great Notion is a book that's near and dear to the hearts of many a Pacific Northwesterner (read it, if you haven't), and hopes are high for Portland Center Stage's production. A locally developed show, cast with a decent number of local actors (though none of the leads, it must be noted), based on one of the best books about the Northwest ever written—it's an exciting proposition, especially given the resources at Portland Center Stage's disposal; and a challenging one, given the novel's density and narrative complexity, and the crucial role played by its distinctive setting.
Ken Kesey's novel superimposes the strained relationship between two brothers, Hank and Leland Stamper, over the story of a small loggingcommunity in the midst of a strike. The Stampers are the only family in town who aren't participating in the strike—they are continuing to log while the rest of the townspeople are out of work—and the book pits their dogged individualism against the needs of the greater community. Hank and Leland represent another set of poles: Big brother Hank's easy physicality and unstudied confidence are at odds with self-conscious, resentful Leland, a squirrelly East Coast intellectual played here by Karl Miller as something like Sideshow Bob trapped in Topher Grace's body. Leland has ostensibly come to Oregon to help Hank turn trees into lumber—his real reason, though, is to take revenge on the older brother who has always overshadowed him, so Leland sets his sights on Hank's wife, Vivian (played by a disappointingly conventional Sarah Grace Wilson).
The story skips from locale to locale—from the Stamper house, perched precariously on the bank of the Wakonda River, to the forest where the men work, to a bar where the locals gather. Wisely, despite the scene changes, Tony Cisek's set is largely static, a versatile, beautifully layered thing, with mottled blue-green planks jutting up into the rafters as sunlight (so to speak) trickles down.
The show's only real fault is that director Aaron Posner (who also adapted the novel) plays the coquette more often than he should. Sometimes should be many things, but it should not be cute—yet this serious-minded show about jealousy, fatal stubbornness, and a town whose very livelihood is at stake can't resist batting its eyes at the audience now and then. (At one point, the show paused so that the audience could applaud a line about how much it rains in Oregon. Really, Portland audiences? That's what makes you spontaneously applaud? A precipitation joke?) It's a minor complaint, though, in what is otherwise an intelligently conceived and gorgeously executed production.