“Kissing the Joy As it Flies” returns to the stage

The show played to enthusiastic audiences at Vashon Center for the Arts in 2019.

My wife Gerry and I spent most of our professional lives putting sentences together for institutions, causes, and people, yet nothing we have done has given us as much pleasure as getting to know the late writer Brian Doyle, arranging a collection of his words for the stage, and being part of the creative team that brought them to life.

“Kissing the Joy As It Flies: The Wit and Wisdom of Brian Doyle,” played to enthusiastic audiences at Vashon Center for the Arts in 2019, and is now being reprised in four encore performances at VCA in March.

How we got to know Brian Doyle and the genesis of this production is a serendipitous story in itself, beginning with admiring his writing, and then meeting and enjoying a growing friendship with him and his wife, Mary Miller Doyle.

And finally how— through a partnership with director Charlotte Tiencken and the Vashon Repertory Theatre community—we were able to bring his words and stories to the stage.

The Backstory

I knew of Brian’s reputation long before Gerry and I moved to Vashon some 30 years ago. In the field of academic publications myself, I knew that in the galaxy of college alumni magazines, Portland Brian Doyle’s magazine at the University of Portland — stood out like a bright star.

It regularly contained thoughtful, provocative essays by leading national and regional writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Barry Lopez, and David James Duncan. What particularly attracted us were Brian’s own essays, little jewels that appeared inside the front cover of each issue — each beautifully crafted and eliciting joy, laughter, and sometimes tears.

When we moved here, I quickly sought him out. To my surprise, I discovered that the magazine was only his day job. At night and on weekends, he had become the author of some 30 books of essays, fiction, and poetry, his work appearing in Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, and his many awards including three prestigious Pushcart prizes.

In 2015 we invited him to speak as part of a lecture series we had organized for then Vashon Allied Arts. We learned that his work was and still is a perennial favorite of islanders.

A Surprise Discovery

By chance, Gerry read in the New Yorker that the actors Tony Shalhoub and his wife Brooke Adams were doing a reading of Brian’s essays at a supper club in Brooklyn as a benefit for a program promoting literature in city schools. We watched a video recording of their reading and were amazed at how well his stories worked when spoken aloud. It was at that moment we knew we had to find a way to share them here on Vashon.

Brian was enthusiastic about the idea and recommended several books and periodicals to draw from. A few months later he was diagnosed with an incurable brain cancer. Six months later, he died at the age of 60.

After several months, Mary Doyle encouraged us to proceed. With no previous playwriting experience, we called on our friend, actor Jeanne Dougherty, who said our first step was to have a conversation with director Charlotte Tiencken. That was a turning point for us.

Charlotte’s vast theatrical experience opened our eyes to the potential of an ensemble performance. While we had been imagining a “reader’s theater” presentation, she envisioned a group of actors interacting to bring his words and dialogue to life. We asked her to direct the show.

Gerry and I read everything we could find and pieced together a script consisting entirely of his words. Charlotte offered it to four seasoned actors — Jeanne Dougherty, David Mielke, Cate O’Kane, and Paul Shapiro — who immediately signed on and added their interpretations and talents. In addition, Vashon musician Kat Eggleston joined the cast to provide musical interludes. She also wrote original music to the William Blake poem that inspired the play’s title. And that’s how it happened. “Kissing the Joy as it Flies” became the perfect celebration of Brian’s life and work.

Hopeful Words in a Difficult Time

Much has transpired in the world since “Kissing the Joy…” was first performed here in 2019. The pandemic and its aftermath and the divisive political climate have left many people sad and pessimistic about the future.

Last summer, over coffee with Charlotte, the subject of a reprise came up and immediately seemed like the perfect antidote.

Within a matter of days, all five original cast members signed on again and VCA was booked for four performances next month. Gerry and I went over the script with fresh eyes and added some new material. Everything seemed right.

“You know,” Charlotte said, “this is a dark time for a lot of people. I think we all need to hear Brian’s words again. They give us comfort and help to renew our faith in humanity.”

Mike Feinstein, retired after a distinguished career in communications, long worked with his wife Gerry to curate Vashon Center for the Arts’ popular Arts & Humanities series.

Vashon Repertory Theatre’s production of “Kissing the Joy as It Flies: The Wit and Wisdom of Brian Doyle” will be presented March 22-24 at Vashon Center for the Arts. Find out more and get tickets at vashoncenterforthearts.org.