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Art Notes: Local meets global with major movie release, regional play adaptation

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    Jonathan Majors, left, and Glen Powell in Columbia Pictures' "Devotion." (Eli Ade/Sony Pictures/TNS) Eli Ade—TNS

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    Screenwriter Jake Crane is the co-writer of the 2022 film "Devotion." Crane is a 1999 graduate of Woodstock Union High School. (Courtesy photograph)

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    Jonathan Majors in Columbia Pictures' "Devotion." (Sony Pictures photograph) Sony Pictures photograph

  • Alex Hanson. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/24/2022 2:46:48 PM
Modified: 11/28/2022 7:37:51 PM

In a further sign of the Upper Valley’s growing reach in the arts, the Thanksgiving week will offer art both global and local in scale that has ties to the area.

First the global: Devotion, which can safely be called “a major motion picture,” is on view in Lebanon and Claremont. The story of the friendship between two Korean War fighter pilots was adapted for the screen by Jake Crane, a 1999 graduate of Woodstock Union High School.

And the local is Northern Stage’s adaptation of The Railway Children, a classic British novel that changes the setting to White River Junction during the Great Depression, a production intended to rekindle the theater company’s tradition of grand holiday-season entertainment after the coronavirus pandemic.

While living in the Upper Valley during his middle and high school years, Crane was more interested in basketball and math than in the arts. But a teacher at Phillips Exeter, where he took a post-graduate year before college, and a screenwriting professor at Vanderbilt University turned him on to the power of the written word.

“I never thought there was a career in that,” Crane, 41, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three children. He switched his major from math and economics and took all the theater classes he could. (Vanderbilt didn’t have a film program.)

After graduate school at Columbia, he worked in New York, reading scripts while working on his own. He had adapted a book about World War II, but that screenplay ended up in a drawer after Sony Pictures reorganized.

But it led to someone handing off to him, via his manager, a copy of Devotion, a 2014 book by Adam Makos about the friendship of two fighter pilots, one a Yankee WASP, the other a son of a Mississippi sharecropper and the first Black carrier pilot in the U.S. Navy.

Having had one historical screenplay tucked away, he was reluctant to consider another. Screenwriters are paid to write but also want to see their scripts on the screen. Period movies are hard to make; it’s expensive to create all those sets and visual effects.

But he read the book over a weekend and by Monday had changed his mind. “It had an effect on me that I didn’t expect,” he said.

He and his then-writing partner pitched a treatment, and the producers preferred their version over others they’d received.

They were hired to write two drafts, which they completed by the end of 2018. That might have been the end of it, but Crane’s agent also represented J.D. Dillard, whose father was the second African American member of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s celebrated precision flying team.

Crane and Dillard wrote a new draft of the script, and Crane was hired as the on-set writer, a new experience for him.

“I was never more terrified than at the table read,” he said. Hearing what he’d written come out of the actors’ mouths was unnerving. “Even on the set it’s, ‘Oh no, I wrote that and it doesn’t feel right.’ ”

Devotion opened nationwide on Wednesday, and ads for the film have been inescapable, backed by a blockbuster’s marketing budget. The book was full of action, and Crane was told to think big when he was adapting it.

The script he’s working on now is decidedly smaller, an adaptation of a book by sportswriter Bill Plaschke about the Paradise (Calif.) High School football team, which spurred the town’s rebuilding after the devastating 2018 Camp Fire burned it down.

Crane’s family is still in the Upper Valley, including his brother Noah, who owns the Upper Valley Nighthawks, a collegiate summer league baseball team. He hopes to host a local screening of Devotion, much as Hanover born Julian Higgins brought his recent film, God’s Country, to the Hopkins Center for a screening and Q & A.

Northern Stage’s production of The Railway Children is already here, in previews before Saturday’s opening night.

Carol Dunne first encountered Edith Nesbit’s 1905 story while in London with Dartmouth theater students. She read it to her own children when they were little.

For Northern Stage’s 25th anniversary season, the company wanted to do something special, and this story came to mind. The company found that the book was now in the public domain, which meant it could be adapted without great expense in buying rights.

Dunne brought in Jane Shaw to do sound design, and Shaw suggested Mark Hartman, with whom she was working on another project. While Dunne and Eric Love were adapting the play to set it in White River Junction, Shaw and Hartman wrote songs.

In its own way, the result is as global as Devotion: a play written here with original music that’s having what can rightly be called a world premiere.

The Railway Children also examines how global events affect small places. It tells a story in which a family relocates from city to countryside and is meant to honor the resilience that got the Upper Valley through the pandemic.

“This is such a close-knit community that we wanted this play to parallel what we’ve all experienced these last couple of years,” Dunne said.

This play, and season, is a challenge to pull off, Dunne noted. An estimated 30% of theater workers left the profession in the past two years, particularly on the technical side. Northern Stage is still short-staffed. So she’s particularly grateful that this show will see the light.

Seldom do theater companies tell stories about their own communities, in part out of fear that the show won’t travel and be produced elsewhere.

“We really didn’t want to think about that right now,” Dunne said.

It’s enough to be thinking about home during the holidays.

For more information about Northern Stage’s production of The Railway Children, go to northernstage.org

Post-Thanksgiving fun

The Anonymous Coffeehouse returns in Lebanon’s First Congregational Church at 7:30 Friday evening with performances by Nashville-based singer-songwriter Sam Robbins; The Rough & Tumble, a folk husband-and-wife duo; and Jaded Ravins, another married duo who play an electrified folk-rock. Admittance is free; a hat is passed for the musicians.

Vermont Almanac

The third issue of the Vermont Almanac should be in local bookstores, according to an announcement from the Corinth-based publication. In the absence of other publications that explain the state and its ethos, the Almanac is a must-read, featuring the work of more than 70 writers and artists. Go to vermontalmanac.org for more information.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

Correction: The Railway Children was adapted for the stage by Carol Dunne and Eric Love. Love’s name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.


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