More Mysteries of the North Country- #4
The Master Butchers Singing Club
A play by Marsha Norman based upon the novel by Louise Erdrich
Guthrie Theater, through October 30
Family secrets are by no means unique to the northern plains, but this play (and the book which preceded it) explores the dynamics of the relationships between German immigrants and American Indians in a small town in North Dakota. Louise Erdrich has written several novels exploring variations of this theme, with many of the same characters reappearing in different books. This novel was loosely based on the life of her grandparents, who actually operated a butcher shop in Little Falls, Minnesota up until the mid-50s. The adaptation by Marsha Norman ('night Mother, The Color Purple, The Secret Garden) does a commendable job of knitting several story lines together into a coherent whole. The playwright chose to make use of a narrator, the Indian woman Step and a Half, who comments on the action from within and at a distance from the happenings on the stage.
The play is set up as the chronicle of the life of a German immigrant, Fidelis Waldvogel and is family, but also of Delphine Watzka, her alcoholic father Roy, her reluctant lover Cyprian and her friend Clarisse. Delphine, who works at the butcher shop, doesn't know who or where her mother is, and as the story progresses circumstance and fate draws the two families together. Delphine discovers the truth about her mother and the tragic past which still haunts the town and its people.
This is drama, not just an entertainment. Erdrich explores the history of the tribulations of 20th century American Indians in all of her books. They are sprawling, messy affairs, realistically mirroring the often chaotic lives of these people who are trying to retain the values and traditions in the face of the white culture. Her writing is subtle and tempered with humor and understanding- creating a tension which makes for an enthralling, if somewhat exhausting, evening at the theater. This is the kind of production that the Guthrie needs to remain vital. Artistic director Joe Dowling worked on this project a long time and succeeded in elevating the one area where the Guthrie has been historically deficient- regional theater.