My Minnesota: Playwright John Olive's 'Minnesota Moon' gets a new look

  • Updated: February 1, 2014 - 4:58 PM
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Minneapolis playwright John Olive

He’s so busy — crafting kids’ plays, recording ad voice-overs, developing a bedtime-story app, reviewing theater online and even adapting Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” for the stage — that John Olive forgot to celebrate a special 35th anniversary.

In January and February 1979, his 45-minute play, “Minnesota Moon,” was all the buzz. The story, set on a summer night in 1968 at a deserted southern Minnesota farmhouse, features two 18-year-olds. Alan and Larry drink beer, belch and swear.

Alan is heading to the University of Minnesota the next day to study drama. Larry is stuck pumping gas in his fictitious small town of Maple Lake (loosely based on Mankato, not the real Maple Lake). Their pal just headed off for Vietnam. Another was killed that summer in an accident. They share a tender night under a big Minnesota moon.

The play made it to New York City in 1979 with Jeff Daniels playing Larry. The New Yorker called it “unpretentious and haunting.” the New York Times lauded Olive for “evoking an atmosphere of wistfulness.”

Popular local storyteller Kevin Kling says “Minnesota Moon” is among the reasons he became a playwright. It’s been staged umpteen times as far away as Scotland.

“I wrote it in my late 20s, but I was 18 that summer of ’68, just like Al and Larry,” Olive said. “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then.”

Son of an Army doctor, Olive was born in Japan. He was 4 when they moved to Mankato. Like Alan, he headed to the U to study drama.

Toward the end of “Minnesota Moon,” Alan says: “Ain’t no use in fussin’ about it and their ain’t no use hangin’ around either. Maple Lake ain’t a place to live, it’s a place to leave.”

Since he left Mankato, Olive has made a living writing and teaching. He and his wife, graphic artist Mary, have a 17-year-old son, Michael. Now delving into theater for young audiences, his latest projects include adapting a play called “Art Dog” for the Seattle Children’s Theatre in April. He’s also developing an iPad app that will let parents and kids click a button to hear good bedtime stories. For more details, check out www.johnolive.net.

And just when you thought his “Minnesota Moon” breakthrough masterpiece had faded like footprints in sand, Olive got a call from London-based filmmaker Cyrus Trafford — asking permission to turn “Minnesota Moon” into a short film. After brief negotiations, Olive and Trafford reached accord. “He didn’t have to pay at all,” Olive said with a shrug.

The film puts Alan and Larry on a beach with a railroad track. Not exactly Mankato. You can check it out at http://vimeo.com/82512766.

CURT BROWN

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