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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Theater: The Petrified Forest
by MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
2004-09-29

This article shared 2905 times since Wed Sep 29, 2004
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Playwright: Robert Emmet Sherwood

At: Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana

Phone: (219) 836-3255; $25-$35

Runs through: Oct. 10

All right, we've got the café in the Arizona desert. We've got the virginal young woman who pines for a more exciting life than her protective father, doddering grandsire and lustful swain are willing to provide her. And before we are finished, we get a dissipated-but-sensitive drifter who falls for the girl, a pair of Fat Cats who shrink from mixing with commoners—oh, and a trio of ruthless gangsters on the lam whose occupation of this remote outpost forces the captives to question their values before taking action (or not).

Theatre At The Center's season customarily includes a serious selection for its fall production, but Robert Emmet Sherwood's gritty 1935 drama—a milestone in American Realism and the prototype for hostage plays to this day—ultimately proves an ill-advised choice for a company whose stock-in-trade is lightweight musical fare for the over-sixty crowd. Indeed, grit is a commodity conspicuously missing in this ambivalent interpretation of a story whose dynamic must encompass restless dissatisfaction giving way to desperate self-confrontation under crisis.

The source of the problem may lie in the dimensions of TATC's helipad-sized stage. Actors forced to converse over unnaturally long distances often adopt a likewise declamatory delivery more appropriate to classical tragedy. But the resulting overabundance of both physical and psychological breathing room in what should be a milieu characterized by stifling isolation so dilutes any tension that even the entrance of villains brandishing an arsenal of high-powered firearms elicits no more concern than relief at an interruption to foil the ingenue's imminent surrender to the advances of her insistent boyfriend.

With the exception of such seasoned troupers as Brian McCaskill, Gary Houston and William J. Norris, the actors are unequal to the demands of their period dialogue. More crippling than the stilted delivery and prettified environment, however, is the uneasy suspicion that director Michael Weber's decision to mute the vintage violence, profanity and sexual innuendo bespeaks a deliberate attempt to protect his audiences from his play's harsh motifs. It remains to be seen whether playgoers undemoralized by the film version more than half a century earlier will appreciate his solicitous efforts to transform a searing melodrama into a cozy romance.


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