By Robert E. Sherwood
Directed by Shade Murray
At Strawdog Theatre, Chicago
Depression Era drama still resonates today
“I’m looking for something to believe in, something to die for” – Squire
Strawdog Theatre is know for their ambitious ensemble-driven plays. Their latest, The Petrified Forest, first performed in 1935, is one of the plays of Robert E. Sherwood, one of America’s best-known playwrights. He won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1936, 1939, and 1941. One of the reasons the play is so well known is that the 1941 movie adaptation is considered a classic of the gangster genre. Like the Broadway production, the movie starred Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. The role of Duke Mantee (Jamie Van), a bitter and complex sociopath, made Bogart a movie star, and his performance helped define how Hollywood was to portray gangsters ever after.
The story concerns three characters who move between love and despair: Alan Squire (Paul Fagen), a penniless intellectual who has come to the desert to die; Gabby (Caroline Neff), the cafe waitress who believes that her life would be rich with meaning if she could leave the cultural wasteland of America and go to France to study art; and Mantee, a desperate criminal who stalls his escape to reunite with a woman he never talks about. Sherwood uses them, along with the other characters that are held hostage by the gangsters at a small diner on the edge of the desert, to explore the American myths of the sensitive artist and the gangster, finding that they are not as different as they might at first seem.
With a ample set depicting a desert diner circa 1935 (Nic Dimond set designer), The Petrified Forest is a period piece filled with earthy and desperate characters. Classics need to be produced for each generation and this production is terrific. Fast paced, rich with fully developed characters, The Petrified Forest hooks us quickly as Sherwood wastes no time introducing us to life in the Arizona desert during the 30’s. Sherwood alludes to the Red Scare (Communist struggle) as he depicts the Depression Era belief that “something is wrong with the social order.” We meet several defeated folks, a wondering intellectual and an optimistic, dreamy girl anxious to find her roots in France. When fate gathers them with the hunted gangster, Duke Mantee, destinies are fulfilled and lives are changed forever. With an under-sexed college boy, an estranged married couple, a senile grandfather and a patriotic dinner owner, Sherwood presents a nice mixture of American archetypes to express his impressions of the American experience. Full of light moments, intellectual expressions and dramatic action, The Petrified Forest is an engaging show that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
Jamie Van gave Duke Mantree an eerie touch of the sociopath and unrepentant killer. Walther Brody, as Gramp was the voice of the past folks who braved to settle the American West. Shane Kenyon was effective as the horny college boy pinning for Gabby Maple, the cute waitress that Caroline Nett did truthful work as the idealistic, dreaming girl wanting to find her heritage in the France of her birth.
Paul Fagen, using a forced accent, spoke too fast and he ran his works together thus diluting some of his finest moments. His performance as the wandering intellectual demanded articulation, charm and wit—all of which Fagen never reached with enough depth . But his warmth wins us eventually and his fine romantic chivalry powerfully fulfills the dramatic tension of the show.
The shootout at the end was nicely played in pure gangster style. The Petrified Forest is more than simply a gangster play- it is also a political allegory that becomes a portrait of the desires and frustrations of the Depression Era. Many of the dilemmas dramatized here still ring relevant today. The ensemble work here is winning; the show is most engaging and worthy in the best style of Strawdog Theatre.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: March 2, 2012
For more info checkout The Petrified Forest page on theatreinchicago.com
At Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, www.strawdog.org, tickets $28 with group/senior/student discounts, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 4 pm, running time is 2 hours, 5 minutes with intermission, through march 31, 2012