[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-PETRIFIED.html]


by Robert Sherwood
Directed by Kathy Scambiatterra
The Artistic Home
1420 W. Irving Park Road / (866) 811-4111
Through November 26, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 19, 2006

The Artistic Home Ensemble presents yet another great American playwright from the early decades of the 20th century in “The Petrified Forest“, directed byKathy Scambiatterra and starring a mix of company stalwarts and guest artists. This is a huge cast in a tiny space presenting small lives and big thoughts – very well indeed.

Playwright Robert Sherwood almost immediately establishes the political underpinnings of the play. We hear about “Red propaganda” and “Bolsheviks” within the first few minutes of the first scene, placing us quickly in that time between the two world wars, just a few years after the Russian upheavals of 1917, during a time when those in power felt particularly vulnerable to the strength of the assembled common man. In this one set small town diner drama (not unlike William Inge‘s “Bus Stop” that graced the stage of Writers’ Theatre earlier this year) we are introduced to local characters including some involved in the American Legion, a vaguely patriotic volunteer group we don’t hear about so much anymore, veterans of the first world war, awkwardly uniformed and armed. One character bemoans that his generation is “too late for the Great War and too early for the revolution”, and this observation lingers over the action of the entire play. Sherwood’s yarn is part love story, part adolescent yearning hope, part adult disillusion, part class war, and all hopefully and politically American from the uneasy times at the height of the Great Depression.

The Maple family owns and runs the Black Mesa Bar B-Q lunch room and gas station. Jason (Tim Goldich) is middle-aged, a Great War veteran, and earnestly patriotic. His father Gramp (the always entertaining Mark Dillon) helps out while constantly scamming to cage a drink from employees or customers (think of the Walter Brennan character in “To Have and Have Not” — a kindly lush). Daughter Gabby (Maria Stephens) provides our romantic vision of thwarted life possibilities (she reads poetry and her mother is French but she is stuck in a small town) and chance possible romantic physical encounters with various male characters. The additional characters are employees of the Maple family or visitors to their establishment. Boze (Peter Fitzsimmons) is the new kid in town, counter man at the lunch room, making the moves on Gabby, “just a big guy with a big heart and plenty of hot blood”. When the mysterious Alan Squier (John Mossman) arrives, the viewer immediately asks: will this stranger be the scapegoat for the locals’ fears? And more visitors round out the action and flesh out themes of class competition and the outlaw west.

Squier is our Every Man-visitor-wise observer. He appears to be deeply sad yet is often bemused by the interactions he observes in the diner. When pressed he notes that “I have never kidded anybody outside myself”. When he asks Gabby where the road through the Arizona desert leads, she replies “to the petrified forest”, and we’re galloping down this particular overt yet workable metaphor. Boze and Squier represent simple archetypes (brawn versus brain), and their personalities and their characters’ intentions come to a head over their feelings toward Gabby. The rich Chisholms (Katherine O’Neill and Eustace Allen) and their chauffeur Joseph (the graceful Randolph Johnson), who stop into the roadside diner by chance on their way from Dayton, Ohio to Santa Barbara, represent oblivious unthinking wealth. Archetypes aplenty: kindly generous hardworking poor brawn; thoughtless, superior, rude rich weakness (the Chishoms can’t even drive themselves!).

At one point the plot of this play becomes “Key Largo” (Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play as adapted to the screen in 1948), or better said: we are familiar with the outlines of the play’s action because of the more familiar and later “Key Largo”. In the movie version of the later story, an old army buddy (played by Humphrey Bogart) of a dead war hero, visits the new widow (played by Lauren Bacall) and war hero’s father (played by Lionel Barrymore), and through external forces (a hurricane) and internal forces (gangster residents holding out waiting for the arrival of their illegal goods), all these characters and more become prisoners in the family-run inn at the hands of rum running bad guys led by Edward G. Robinson. Similarly, our “Petrified Forest” crew of locals eventually are held captive in a family run business by highwaymen, led by the angry, smart, but outlaw character Duke (Mike Carroll). Duke provides a complementary dichotomy for our Squier character: while Boze is brawn to Squier’s brain, Duke is smart outlaw to Squier’s principled intellectual. Duke is an appealing outlaw, often nicely directed by Scambiattera with humor crafted in the midst of terrorizing the diner denizens. For example, Duke calmly reviews the diner menu while holding Boze and Gabby at gunpoint. Squier notes that “cowardice has nothing to do with crime, It has something to do with glands”. No one type is pure in this script and this production. One of the desperados becomes dreamy at one point, noting that “you see plenty in the moonlight”. There was one point of directorial mis-cuing: Duke’s final slow burn is not quite convincing. The character movies from calm charming to explosive too quickly or inexplicably, and this transition is key to the play’s action. We don’t see the slow menacing development of explosive energy that the part seems to call for.

“Petrified Forest” was originally staged in 1935 with Leslie Howard (yes, Ashley Wilkes) as Squier and Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee, roles they repeated in the 1936 movie version. The themes of communism and righteous hordes of earnest good-hearted country folk would have resonated differently prior to World War II when the play opened than it would in the years afterward. Almost every character (save the Chisholms from Dayton) futilely seeks heroic moves, but these characters are not living in a heroic time. Between the world wars there is excess and need, with great and desperate income disparity among the classes, but not yet the unifying enemy force of Germany’s National Socialism. Gabby yearns helplessly and romantically; Squier attempts to make a dramatic and noble gesture to ensure Gabby’s future; and the Chisholms are upper class ghouls who spark up only when there is the possibility of gunplay. For Mrs. Chisholm in particular, disturbingly all of the interactions among the townspeople are just playacting to her — folks outside her social purview are just specters crafted for her own amusement. She notes with detached excitement at one point that “we’re going to finally see something. He’s actually going to shoot him!” Is this humorous or haunting? Today we say both.

The one room set design by Greg Guyles feels dusty and time bound and perfectly appropriate. This is a masterfully crafted piece of period Americana, full of archetypes and lovely speeches and evocations of broad expanses of wide open land and possibilities of character. Artistic Home scores again.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 19, 2006)

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