Do you need a reason why in the 2018 summer of our discontent Berkshire Theatre Group has staged Robert E. Sherwood’s seldom-revived, Depression-era, 1935 classic melodrama "The Petrified Forest"? Look no further than the first act when the protagonist remarks “nature is taking the world away from the intellectuals and giving it back to the apes.”
Alan Squier, intellectual dilettante, failed author, self-admitted gigolo and ex-husband to an expat rich American has whiled away his life in a post-WWI Fitzgeraldian Paris on twelve o’clocktails. He’s hitchhiked to the eastern Arizona desert at the edge of the petrified forest, to the edge of his life.
Sherwood’s tale of immortality plays out in the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q, inhabited by its unhappy owner, WWI vet Jason Mapple, his whiskey’d father who’s reliving the pioneer days of the Old West, and Jason’s teenage daughter, Gabby, who dreams to go to Paris and learn French . When Squier walks into the roadside joint, she’s reading an English version of “Poems of Francois Villon” sent to her by her war-bride French mother who abandoned her and her father to return to France when Gabby was an infant.
Gabby’s indifferent to affections of the local football hero who pumps gas, so even when Squier disabuses her of her fantasies, she becomes smitten with the foreign traveler. Meanwhile, gangsters on the lam lead by the macho Duke Mantee take the roadside joint hostage, including a WASPY American couple, the Chisolms. Mrs. Chisholm, a self-defined actress, who’s had nervous breakdowns and is trapped in a pointless marriage to the doltish Mr. Chisolm, encourages Gabby to “go to France and find yourself”. In a shocking finale, playwright Sherwood, who after Petrified Forest went on to win three Pulitzers, reveals what happens to cynic/romantic Alan and naïf/ dreamer Gabby.
Playwrights still write melodrama today: Sherwood’s desperation-at-the-edge of desert shows up in Sam Shepherd’s work like “Fool for Love” decades later. But, they don’t write them like this anymore. Fitting that playwright David Auburn directs. Himself a Pulitzer Prize winner -for “Proof” almost 65 years after Sherwood won his - Auburn plays it straight. He doesn’t re-interpret, he lets the playwright’s text speak for itself, even when he knows we as audience will know characters don’t talk like this anymore.
The cast mirrors Auburn’s confidence in the text. BTG favorite David Adkins anchors the ensemble with the lead role that Leslie Howard originated on stage and then played in the famous 1936 movie version. Adkins’ Alan Squier is splendid, never slipping into pity-party, but balancing on a tightrope between marvelous self- loathing and formidable ego. Adkins makes Alan's melodramatic choice inevitable.
A charming Rebecca Brooksher, last seen as Maggie the Cat at BTG, as Gabby (the Bette Davis part in the movie) maintains a hard-edged, nobody’s fool artifice that belies youthful naiveté. John Thomas Waite provides welcome comic relief as Gramps; in contrast, Joey Collins, as one of Duke’s goons, seen last year with Adkins in “Zoo Story”, provides evil menace. Jeremy Davidson, as Duke Mantee, the role that made Humphrey Bogart a star, defines his part with a sexual physicality, dripping testosterone with every move. Jennifer Van Dyke as a woman on the edge of another nervous breakdown deserves special credit for fully embracing some of the most anachronistic-sounding of Sherwood’s dialogue.
Director Auburn lets this “Petrified Forest” express Sherwood’s progressive politics. Auburn cleverly begins with the radio broadcasting a New Deal speech by Franklin Roosevelt (for whom Sherwood sometimes penned speeches), which is followed by a robust defense of Russian communism by a lunch customer. In fact, at the time, socialism was especially prevalent in the union movement and in theatre community. Pay close attention to how Sherwood portrays BarBQ owner Jason Mapple as feeling unappreciated as a WWI vet (we’d now say “marginalized”): the nation in the mid-30s was head-in-the-sand isolationist. With the restaurant kitchen help, Sherwood makes plain Mexicans were regarded as second-class, but he observes class tension too between the college-educated football star and Duke’s low-life gunmen, even between ordinary (white)folk and the upper-crusty Chisolms. Most acutely sensitive though, and way ahead of its time, is the second act speech Sherwood gives Mrs. Chisolm that proclaims a woman’s emancipation decades before the bra-burning Sixties.
Scenic designer Wilson Chin works a miracle with the tiny Fitzpatrick mainstage. His period set with drop ceiling and illusional roadside perspective creates a claustrophobic tinderbox that not only accommodates a large cast of thirteen but also allows for a technically complicated, explosive finale. BTG’s smart production demonstrates with skill and sensitivity that “Petrified Forest” is far from out of date. It’s all in the text.
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