by Macey Levin
The American theatre in the 1930’s was populated by a pantheon of major playwrights: Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, Thornton Wilder, Kaufman and Hart, Maxwell Anderson and, perhaps the least known, Robert E. Sherwood, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes in different fields. He went on to become President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speechwriter during the early 40’s and then a screenwriter – Rebecca; The Best Years of our Lives and more. His best-known plays include Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Idiot’s Delight and The Petrified Forest, which made Humphrey Bogart a star on Broadway and in Hollywood. Written in 1935, the play is seldom produced, but it is receiving a skilled production at Berkshire Theatre Group Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
The play takes place in the Depression when people’s lives were filled with frustration and lost hope. In the opening scene two linemen are having lunch, one of whom complains about the chaos and inequality in America, comparing it to the efficiency and success of Russian society. In the 30’s and early 40’s this was a relatively frequent discussion which would ultimately subject stage and screenwriters to the misguided wrath of the house UnAmerican Activities Committee of the late 40’s and early 50’s.
Jason Maple, (Sean Cullen) his father Gramp (John Thomas Waite) and his daughter Gabrielle (Rebecca Brooksher) run a luncheonette/gas station on an Arizona highway where a host of diverse characters assemble through the day. The egocentric Boze, (Shawn Fagan) a newly-hired employee who boasts of his exploits as a college football player, is infatuated by Gabby. Alan Squier, (David Adkins) an unsuccessful author and lost human being, stumbles in. Impressed by his charm and experiences, Gabby ignores his cautions about the pitfalls life offers.
A wealthy married couple, the Chisholms, (Jennifer Van Dyck and Walter Hudson) enter followed by Duke Mantee, (Jeremy Davidson) a mass killer on the run along with his gang. They take over the store while awaiting the arrival of his blondegirl friend. Within the development of character relationships and conflicts, Sherwood inserts effectively phrased and expressed speeches which reflect the dominant attitudes of the Depression’s victims as they try to bring definition to their lives.
Though the play may be talky, the cast brings insight and life to their work. David Adkins’ Alan Squier demands our attention and empathy as he tells Gabby of his life in a lengthy expository scene. She, in turn, relates her dream to visit France to rejoin her mother and to become an artist. Their story is the core of the play. Adkins, who always infuses his roles with intelligence and intuition, is a joy to watch and to listen to. Brooksher’s Gabby attempts to control her feelings, but her deep-seated passions cause her great confusion, especially in light of Squier’s eloquence and Boze’s raw emotion and energy. She maintains a strong presence whle wending her way through inner conflicts.
Jeremy Davidson won’t make us forget Bogart. His Mantee doesn’t have Bogart’s snarl; rather, he is laid back leaving control to his partners, intervening only when necessary. In contrast to the other hostages, the Chisholms are wealthy and unused to the dangers surrounding them. They also supply some comic relief (there are a number of healthy laugh lines) until Van Dyck reveals her pain of living an empty life.. The entire cast is uniformly consistent rendering the situation and dialogue credible.
David Auburn’s direction moves the various plot lines quickly despite the verbosity within the script. The fittingly dingy set designed by Wilson Chin allows Auburn to create stage pictures that subtly suggest the ebb and flow of the various confrontations. The set is also peppered by props that unmistakably denote the time period. Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes are also indicative of the 30’s and Daniel J. Kotlowitz’s lighting enhances the claustrophobic feel of the surroundings.
The Petrified Forest is seldom performed, perhaps due to its political content and cast size. Having been reduced for this production from twenty-one to thirteen. BTG is presenting it to recognize the longstanding relationship the company has had with the Sherwood family and the theatre’s 90th anniversary. Whatever the reason, this is a production well worth seeing.
The Petrified Forestby Robert E. Sherwood; Directed by David Auburn; Cast: David Adkins (Alan Squier) Joel Austin (Lineman 2/Legionnaire) Lauren Baez (Paula) Rebecca Brooksher (Gabby Maple) Joey Collins (Ruby) Sean Cullen (Jason Maple) Jeremy Davidson (Duke Mantee) Tre Alexander Dukes (Lineman 1/Pyles) Jennifer Van Dyck (Mrs. Chisholm) Shawn Fagan (Boze Hertzlinger) Walter Hudson (Mr. Chisholm) John Thomas Waite (Gramp) Devin White (Jackie); Scenic Designer:Wilson Chin; Lighting Design: Daniel Kotlowitz; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Sound Designer/Resident Composer: Scott Killian; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Stage Manager: Shelby North; Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one intermission; August 2-25; Berkshire Theatre Group Fitzpatrick Main Stage, Stockbridge,MA