Calling themselves "a collective of artists," a consortium of senior Chicago theater talents have come together under the banner of Running With Scissors to present the world premiere of The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, adapted from the 1991 novel by Tom Spanbauer. An epic story set in the closing days of the Western frontier, the work has been an epic labor of love for Running With Scissors; one which has taken two years to bring to the stage.

As is often the case with a labor of love, the adapters have been so connected to the work, and so earnest in their faithfulness to it, that they have not seen the flaws in their proceedings. The result is a three-act, three-plus hour show of near-panoramic sweep and of frequent inventiveness, but one which loses focus along the way, dissipating its considerable energy (and audience interest) in too many directions. Yet it certainly is far more than an interesting failure. There is genuine originality in Spanbauer's tale, as well as a vision of a changing America, circa 1900, that has resonance to the America of 2000. Running With Scissors has dared to take on a difficult and ambitious story of true dramatic weight and size, and has brought it to the stage with considerable creativity.

The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is set in the town of Excellent, Idaho at the end of the 19th century, a town where mayor Ida Richelieu owns both the saloon and the whorehouse. Eventually, the growing Mormon population topples Ida and her extended family, bringing the blessings of religion--plus intimidation, bigotry, hatred, arson, murder, prudery, hypocrisy, and repression--with them. At the locus of the tale is Shed, a young man believed to be a Native American half-breed who is being raised by Ida. Shed is a berdache, a term meaning "two-spirited sexuality" or "Holy man who f**ks with men," according to the program. A berdache may have healing powers, but he is not the same as a shaman, and he may be bisexual, as is Shed.

About half the play is devoted to Shed: his upbringing, his casual introduction to sex (he is both precocious and anatomically gifted), his personal journey-quest in pursuit of his Native American heritage, and his enduring love for an older man--Dellwood, the moon lover of the title--who engenders Shed's spiritual awakening, and whom Shed comes to believe is his father (which doesn't stop Shed from bedding him).

Abruptly, at mid-play, Shed gives up his personal quest and returns to Excellent, where his putative father soon arrives and joins the extended family at Ida's Indian Head Hotel. At this point, the story introduces a traveling black minstrel show (historic fact: black performers did minstrelsy in black face), headlined by the four Wisdom brothers. As guests of Ida, they spend a night of total "white man's" freedom at the Indian Head--complete with hot baths and white women--even though they know it will cost them their lives at the hands of the increasingly-hostile Mormons.

Okay, so you get the idea: there's a lot going on in The Man in Fell in Love with the Moon, not only when it comes to the Dickensian intricacies of the story (complete with revelations at the end), but thematically as well. There's the corrupting influence of so-called civilization, which destroys the democratic social order of Excellent; the debasement of native American populations; despoilment of the environment (represented by buffalo herds); and race issues vs. the essential goodness and moral neutrality of the natural world, which--in Spanbauer's view-includes free and open sexuality in an idyllic world untainted by STD's.

Ann Boyd is the director and co-adapter (with Timothy Hendrickson and Julia Neary) of this fascinating work, which needs to focus more clearly on Shed and his journey, especially in the second half, and perhaps to lose a few of the side issues all along the way. There also are small, dramaturgical errors that need attention, such as use of the word "faggot" as an insulting term for a homosexual. Whether taken from the novel or an invention of the adapters, it is nevertheless an anachronism. Circa 1900, the derisive term for a man of questionable masculinity was "dude."

Boyd and her ample design team have worked imaginative wonders, fitting a cast of 16 into a studio theater without a sensation of crowding. Scenic/projections designers Stephanie Nelson and David DeCastro, and lighting designer Andrew Meyers, take advantage of the space's vertical height, and evoke a wide variety of settings and circumstances with constructs and platforms of weathered wood, and draperies of old gingham, sheets, blankets, etc. Animal designs (for live actors), costumes, movement, choreography, and music complete the bag of theatrical tricks that assist the storytelling.

The cast is centered by Dale Rivera's calm, understated Shed; a figure who observes and soaks up the passions swirling around him without falling victim to them. In a play of exaggerations, Rivera uses simplicity to give Shed force without exaggeration. Julia Neary as Ida, James Leaming as a grizzled Dellwood (in contrast to his usual leading man roles), Terry Hamilton in opposing dual roles as the friendly Doc and the villainous sherriff, and Alison Halstead as Blind Jude Wisdom all create fussier but clear characters, with strong physical personas, in the other lead and principal supporting roles.

The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon continues through June 17 at the Griffin Theatre.