THEATRE REVIEW: BTG’s ‘The Petrified Forest’ has distinguished cast, awkward shifts in materialMore Info
The Petrified Forest
By Robert E. Sherwood
Directed by David Auburn
“You know it’s the funniest thing about this place. There’s something here that stimulates the autobiographical impulse.”
Robert Sherwood’s comic melodrama “The Petrified Forest” opened in New York in early January 1935 in a season filled with excellent rivals: Sidney Howard’s “Dodsworth” with Walter Huston, Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” Zoe Akins “The Old Maid” starring Judith Anderson and Helen Menken, Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing” and “Waiting for Lefty,” and a host of first-rate musicals. Sherwood’s play stood out as something special for it mixed politics and drama, comedy and tragedy, social commentary and juvenile sexuality in equal measures and surrounded all of this with an honest look at modern-day criminal behavior along the lines of the Warner Brothers gangster films — a splash of harsh 1930s reality. It also starred its popular co-producer Leslie Howard.
Howard had a great deal to do with the success of the play and with the subsequent film version made the following year during a hiatus in the national tour that followed the Broadway run. He also had a lot to do with the casting of the villain of the piece, Duke Mantee, with film failure Humphrey Bogart. It was Bogart’s controlled, quiet performance that brought chills to the audience. Howard insisted on Bogart as part of the film package that followed and his performance created the career that we still celebrate, making this play an even more significant work in terms of American entertainment for decades to come.
In the current production of this seminal work at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the moldering flame of Mantee is less in evidence in the well-crafted but hardly menacing performance by Jeremy Davidson. There is nothing of the smart subtlety of Howard’s performance in David Adkins’ work, which has taken a more whimsical, less intuitive approach. Racial issues have been abandoned completely and politics only rears its outraged head in the opening scene. The social class distinctions still exist and the oddest of happy endings still has its sudden, though hard to grasp, effect.
Some of these changes and shifts are creditably allotted to David Auburn, the director. In the past, he has done classic American plays here after cutting characters out that were the fabric on which the plays have been previously delivered. Characters were cut from Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” along with walls that defined that play’s set. Characters were cut from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” along with walls and windows. Here, the cast of 21 characters has been cut to only 14, played by 13 actors; the main wall is missing; and the play has been perceptibly weakened as a result. It is still a very good play and its plot moves forward without pause, the principal issues still played out effectively. Auburn’s cast is the principal reason to see this play today and pleased we must be with what they achieve.
Jennifer Van Dyck is especially good as the society woman, Mrs. Chisholm, who not only gets caught in the gangsters’ thrall but ultimately embraces her opportunity. She is wonderful in the role, bringing nuance to a blatant part. As her long-suffering rich husband, Walter Hudson provides ample opportunity for his character to be slammed into the invisible wall of invective. Lauren Baez does a fine job with Paula, the Mexican cook. Tre’ Alexander Dukes and Devin White are just fine as gangsters, and Sean Cullen as the gas station/diner owner is perfect for his role.
As his father, and grandfather to the heroine Gabby Maple, John Thomas Waite is the perfect embodiment of the character: grizzled, gritty, gregarious and great in the part. Joey Collins as the preferred buddy of Duke Mantee is fine with what he has, but he might have made a better Mantee in this production; he has proven his dark, low menacing qualities in his Berkshire Theatre Critics Award-winning role last year in Edward Albee’s “At Home At The Zoo.”
The two men who are assumed to be the main characters, Duke Mantee and Alan Squier, are played by two very talented men who bring new insights to their interpretations of these roles. David Adkins’ work here is most unusual. He makes Squier very likeable and yet a bit unsavory. His Squier not only drinks but gets drunk, which calls into question anything he might say to Gabby, who has declared her love for him. He has marvelous, self-revelatory moments as he decides his own fate and that of his belongings. He gives up on life just as life comes to restore him and his faith in human nature; Adkins plays this so forthrightly, it is moving even though we know his rationale is completely wrong. I loved what he did with every aspect of the part of Alan Squier, knowing full well that, when I see the movie again, I will forget all about his work and thrill to the nobility of thought and action that Leslie Howard gives the part,
Likewise, though Jeremy Davidson is more than up to the role of Duke Mantee, he cannot imitate — and should not imitate — the all-too-memorable Bogart. His performance is radically low-key except for a few high-point moments in the script. His motives are never very clear even when stated, for his actions do not seem to be a part of the explanations’ realities.
The third man in the show is Boze, played by Shawn Fagan. He seems to me to be getting everything right in his performance of this football-playing self-hero. Even his moment of rebellion and outrageousness is as well-played and layered as it could be.
In the role of Gabby, Rebecca Brooksher proves herself to be the perfect embodiment of Sherwood’s heroine. She is feisty, loveable and a perfect desert rose. You can feel the prickliness as she defends herself from gas-pump jockey Boze Hertzlinger. You can watch her define honest love as she embraces Alan Squier without touching him. She is the focus of this production and she deserves to hold that place, right at center stage whenever possible.
Technically this is not the best show the BTG has offered. I mentioned my dismay at the upstage wall being absent, which removes the reality of the balance of the excellent set designed by Wilson Chin. Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes are very appropriate for the time and the people and consequently add many layers of reality to the play. Scott Killian, a very talented musician and sound designer, opens the show with the oddest, most overwhelming and disappointing sound cue ever: Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio addressing the nation while a loud country music band plays simultaneously, threatening to drown out the president. It did nothing to set up the play’s time, place or direction. It was just wrong!
David Auburn has done some wonderful work with this play, and some unpleasant choices he has made pull the show down a group of levels. It is too bad that this is so, for here he has excellent material with which to work. I do think it among his best work here directing American classics, but it is not the triumph it should have been, especially not with such a distinguished company of players — not a hit, not a miss, merely a mish-mash of motivations gone awry making the play conform to a director’s half-enthralling vision.
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.