Before Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands—before Sam Shepard, for that matter—a prominent American playwright tied together a crime spree in the West, an offbeat sense of romance and the Existential angst of war babies and wannabe great artists. The result was The Petrified Forest, which launched both Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis when the Hollywood film version got made.
Now the Masquers in Point Richmond are staging Petrified Forest in a good community theater production, and the clear lines of the well-wrought play about the exhaustion of the Frontier myth (if not the American Dream) are clearer on stage than in the movie, with dialogue which places it in time rather than dating it.
Petrified Forest, is set in the Depression, on “the edge of nowhere,” Black Mesa Filling Station and Cafe (John Hull’s excellent set of a counter joint with the ominous sign, “Tipping is UnAmerican/Keep Your Change” on the till—looking out on a rocky scape changing colors with Rob Bradshaw’s lighting), down the road from the Petrified Forest. From the first exchanges, a Lineman (Ted Bigornia) talking up revolution and the Bolsheviks, with Legionnaire Jason Maple (John Burke) deriding him, and old codger Gramp Maple (George Adams as Jason’s father, who really owns the joint) trying to chat up every stranger with tall tales of his bygone youth and Billy The Kid, Sherwood’s dialogue establishes flurries of vigorous discussion, social contention contrasted by personal musings acted out. The middle of nowhere, but everybody seems to wander through—and everybody wants what they don’t have or can’t get, wrangling with the others about what they, or the country, ought to do.
The positivism, and yet ardent nay-saying, of American individualistic enthusiasm is writ large on the diverse countenances of this cast of characters. Jason wants his old man to sell the place so he can go into public life in Southern California. His daughter and waitress Gabby (a very good Laura Morgan) wants to follow her long-gone war bride mother back to France, and reads aloud from the book of Francois Villon poems her mother has sent. Gas pump boy and former Nevada Tech football star Boze (solid Craig Eychner) wants Gabby’s love (or at least her virginity), and a little respect besides. And, wandering in from the road, hitchhiker Alan Squier (a convincing Kyle Johnson, in the Leslie Howard role), ex-gigolo and deferred great author, late of New England and the Riviera, just wants his next meal, the next ride and maybe a sympathetic ear for his self-deprecation, which he finds in rebellious, dreamy Gabby.
Into this little warren of hope pursued and lost come a rich couple from Ohio (Michael Haven and Michael Fay), disappointed by cliff dwellings, and first the rumor, then the reality, of Duke Mantee (a splendid, bluff, all-business Robert Taylor) and his gang (Bigornia, Peter Budinger and Edward Nason), bristling with lifted firepower, who hole up for a planned rendezvous with Duke’s moll after a murderous spree and ongoing manhunt throughout the Southwest.
A funny recognition springs up between Mantee and Squier, which the ex-gigolo takes to be their thwarted chivalrous natures, though it’s more the bottled-up hysteria from all that social malaise that piques Squier’s melancholy. Duke orchestrates it as professional heist boss and mayhem-maker (in 1943, a proto-fascist Robin Hood?)
The Masquers sell the story well, everybody lending something to their character and the ensemble. There’s still the need for more build-up, more intensity in both fore and background for some scenes and a sense of the offbeat at the end. It isn’t easy, nothing is entirely straightforward about Sherwood’s seemingly clear, but rhythmically (and characterologically) complicated script.
A dozen years later, it would have been called Noir, or Existentialist. Adams gets Gramps’ sly, Walter Brennanesque humor, but not his meanness. Johnson delivers Squier’s world-weariness well, but not the moonshine- and gunpoint-inflated excitement that energizes his old rashness. But the brilliant dialogue covers for almost any lapse, and the rightness of the cast, as directed by Marti Baer, should ensure further development. Right now, it’s already a refreshing—and bracing—evening of theater in a community setting.
Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 27 at 105 Park Place, Point Richmond. $18.