THEATRE REVIEW: BTG’s smart production of ‘The Petrified Forest’ demonstrates skill, sensitivityMore Info
The Petrified Forest
By Robert E. Sherwood
Directed by David Auburn
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 ex-pat rich American — has whiled away his life in a post-World War I Fitzgeraldian Paris on 12 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, World War I vet Jason Maple; his whiskeyed father who’s reliving the pioneer days of the Old West; and Jason’s teenage daughter, Gabby, who dreams of going to Paris and learning French. When Squier walks into the roadside joint, she’s reading an English version of “Poems of François 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, led by the macho Duke Mantee, take the roadside joint hostage, including a WASP-y American couple, the Chisholms. Mrs. Chisholm, a self-defined actress who’s had nervous breakdowns and is trapped in a pointless marriage to the doltish Mr. Chisholm, encourages Gabby to “go to France and find yourself.” In a shocking finale, playwright Sherwood, who, after “The 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-ofthe-desert shows up in Sam Shepherd’s work like “Fool for Love” decades later. But they don’t write them like this anymore. It’s 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 the 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 “The 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 Dyck 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 theater community. Pay close attention to how Sherwood portrays BarBQ owner Jason Maple as feeling unappreciated as a World War I 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 Chisholms. Most acutely sensitive, though, and way ahead of its time, is the second-act speech Sherwood gives Mrs. Chisholm that proclaims a woman’s emancipation decades before the bra-burning ‘60s.
Scenic designer Wilson Chin works a miracle with the tiny Fitzpatrick Main Stage. His period set with drop ceiling and illusional roadside perspective creates a claustrophobic tinderbox that not only accommodates a large cast of 13 but also allows for a technically complicated, explosive finale. BTG’s smart production demonstrates with skill and sensitivity that “The Petrified Forest” is far from out of date. It’s all in the text.
The Petrified Forest plays through Saturday, Aug. 25, on the Fitzpatrick Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus, 83 East Main St., Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or call the box office at (413) 997-4444.