With stories and song, theater artists revive a beloved show

The current revival, adding new material, will again be staged in VCA’s Kay White Hall.

“Love is the story and the prayer that matters the most.”

– from “The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart,” by Brian Doyle

“Maybe we guzzle forty stories with every breath we draw and they soak into us and flavor and thicken and spice the wild stew we are.”

– from “A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance,” by Brian Doyle

“Kissing the Joy as it Flies: The Wit and Wisdom of Brian Doyle,” a theatrical bouquet fashioned from the late author’s dazzling observations about being human, is about to bloom again on Vashon.

The show, a deft and fast-paced adaptation of Doyle’s essays, short stories, novels, and letters, was written by islanders Mike and Gerry Feinstein and had its debut at Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA) in 2019.

The current revival, adding new material, is a production of Vashon Repertory Theatre, and will again be staged in VCA’s Kay White Hall.

Running March 22-24, the production will boast a reunion of its original cast and company: director Charlotte Tiencken, and cast Cate O’Kane, Jeanne Dougherty, David Mielke, and Paul Shapiro, with musical interludes by Kat Eggleston.

For the company, and local audiences as well, it is a chance to once again delight in Doyle’s revelations on the small pleasures of life as well as some of its most deep sorrows.

In 2017, Doyle died of brain cancer, at the age of 60, leaving a vast body of words swirling behind him — novels, memoirs, young adult fiction, essays, poems, stories and nonfiction.

Reviewing a widely hailed 2019 posthumous collection of Doyle’s essays and stories, “One Long River of Song,” New York Times writer Margaret Renkl defined Doyle as a psalmist, writing that “every living thing intrigued him and was worthy of his powerful capacity for study and his equally powerful capacity for celebration.”

Doyle wrote love letters to such prosaic pleasures as hot showers and good shoes; his gaze was often fixed on the universe contained within his home: his devotion to his wife and children, and his abiding faith. But he also composed more startling and complex rhapsodies, including one about the relative sizes of the hearts of hummingbirds and blue whales, and was unafraid to address unthinkable tragedies.

After the horror of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Doyle wrote of the bravery of Sandy Hook’s principal and school psychologist, who “leapt out of their chairs and they ran right at the boy with the rifle.” His memoir, “The Wet Engine,” detailed his infant son’s congenital heart defect, and profiled the young surgeon who saved his life. In 2009, he wrote, movingly and prophetically, “On not beating cancer.”

All the while, Doyle held down a day job, as the editor of “Portland,” the magazine of the University of Portland. There too, he excelled: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Dillard called it “the finest spiritual magazine in America.”

Although Doyle was the recipient of many prestigious honors, including three Pushcart Prizes, his work was sometimes described as an almost secret garden of delights for the literary cognoscenti.

The Iowa Review, in 2012, called Doyle “a writer’s writer, unknown to the best seller or even the good-seller lists, a Townes Van Zandt of essayists, known by those in the know.”

Islanders Mike and Gerry Feinstein, in 2015, were two of those in the know — and brought Doyle to Vashon in 2015 to speak in the lecture series they organized for Vashon Center for the Arts at that time.

Doyle’s talk on the island, they said, was an extemporaneous tour-de-force that concluded with his leading the sold-out crowd in a rousing sing-along of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

“He had the audience in the palm of his hand,” Gerry said.

Taking their own leap of faith, the Feinsteins decided to adapt Doyle’s larger body of work for the stage, only to have their project put on hold with Doyle’s death in 2017. But a year later, with the blessing of Doyle’s widow, Mary, they began their work in earnest.

“Through his writing, we began to really know him — his strength of character, his compassion and grace, and his celebration of the tiniest details of living and loving that permeates his writing,” said Gerry.

Now — four years later, after her own cancer diagnosis and treatment — Doyle’s work speaks to her even more deeply.

“Few experiences in life test your spirit more than chemotherapy,” Gerry said. “Combined with the double whammy of the pandemic, it was an incredibly stressful time for us. As a healing exercise, I sought and found laugh-out-loud delight in Brian’s words. I read and reread old favorites and discovered new stories in the massive treasury of his work.”

She and Mike are thrilled to bring the show back to VCA, she said — describing it as an experience for audiences of all ages.

Cast members too, say they are overjoyed to be performing the work again — and in a twist to the typical newspaper interview that Doyle would no doubt approve of, each submitted their thoughts on the show, in writing, to The Beachcomber.

Their epistles included:

“To dive again into the words of Brian Doyle is a joy that makes me giddy,” wrote Dougherty. “To do it with a cadre of fellow artists who shared with me our first exploration of Brian’s writings is a welcome kismet.”

“Embodying and giving voice to his soulfully succulent, playfully wise, and heart-shivering literary juiciness is a gift to those of us blessed with the opportunity to share it, and to the audiences blessed to receive it,” wrote Mielke.

“I’m not a religious person but I do have faith — in myself, in those I love, and most of the time in our greater human good,” wrote O’Cane. “Brian’s words speak to this faith in a way that just floors me, whether he’s writing about a hummingbird’s heart, the horror of a school shooting, or the death of a nun’s crow.”

Mary Doyle, Brian’s widow, also contributed her thoughts via text, as she traveled in Australia.

Mary, an artist, will attend the show on Vashon, as she also did in 2019. During the debut production, an exhibition of her artwork was shown at VCA, and she also participated in a panel discussion that accompanied the production. This time around, she will be joined by her and Brian’s three children — all in their 20s — who will be seeing the show for the first time.

Mary said she is thrilled that the Feinsteins, director Charlotte Tiencken, and the show’s original cast were taking the time to remount the production.

“It’s especially poignant to resurrect this play now — somehow it seems many of us in the United States have spun ourselves into a complicated web and I for one am saddened by the unkindness in our division,” she wrote.

When asked how her husband managed to be such a prolific writer in light of his other work and his devoted family life, Mary described how he did not juggle, but rather, prioritized his life.

“Brian always said he was “a dad, a dad, a dad, husband, son, brother, friend, editor, writer,” in that order,” Mary said. “…Even though he [wrote] for most of his life, he did it around his responsibilities.”

The key discovery for Brian, she said, was his discovery of the form of the essay.

“I believe because he had such a great faith and knew that this is what he was meant to do, he didn’t question it — he wrote as much as he could around what he had to do. When he realized he could write novel chapters in essay form, that opened up the floodgates.

Brian’s life was filled with gratitude, she said.

“He always said he was just the vehicle for the words to flow through,” Mary said. “He felt satisfied and grateful that he was able to write stories — shoot them out like arrows and hope they landed in someone’s heart.”

Show times are 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 22; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 23; and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at Vashon Center for the Arts. Purchase tickets at vashoncenterforthearts.org.