Adaptations to the stage can be tricky things, as can be clearly seen in the Guthrie’s working of Louise Erdrich’s “The Master Butchers Singing Club,” now playing on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. In compressing the novel down to 2½ hours, the play becomes as much a series of discrete scenes as a unified whole, with plots and subplots dropping in and out of focus.
All of this keeps the real heart of the play obscured throughout, despite the efforts of a strong cast and staging that brings the small North Dakota town of Argus to life. Set over three decades, the story focuses on the long-term relationship of Fidelis, a German immigrant butcher who has set up shop in town, and Delphine, a native who returns after some time away. She comes back to find her father, Roy, has descended completely into the bottle — and that there are a trio of corpses in his cellar.
Those deaths haunt most of the play, always in the background of Delphine’s life, even as she is welcomed into Fidelis’ household, first as a worker in the butcher’s shop and later as an aid to his ailing wife, Eva.
Marsha Norman stuffs the script with tons of incidents, but they often seem to get in the way of the stories of our two main characters. Both are haunted by their past: For Fidelis, it’s his time in the trenches during World War I, while Delphine wishes to know who her mother is and why she abandoned the family so many years ago.
It doesn’t help that with all of these events — a desperate hunt for morphine; a collapsed tunnel that has trapped Fidelis’ youngest son — the character of the town and the times never come into focus. While set during the Depression, there are only a few asides here and there about it, even though it would likely dominate the coversations and lives of these small-town farmer folk.
The cast is solid, led by Emily Gunyou Halaas as Delphine and Lee Mark Nelson as Fidelis, with additional strong performances by Sheila Tousey as narrator Step and a Half and Terry Hempleman as tormented Roy.
“The Master Butchers Singing Club” runs through Nov. 6 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. Tickets are $29 to $69. For information, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.