"The Petrified Forest" at Novato Theater Company Playhouse, Novato CA

“The Petrified Forest” by Robert E. Sherwood
Novato Theater Company Playhouse, Novato CA
Presented by The Marin Actors’ Workshop and Ken Bacon

Photo by Eric Chazankin: From left, Ariana Hooper and Ken Bacon
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

A New Look at an Old Classic

“The Petrified Forest” at the Novato Theater Company Playhouse is a fresh take on this iconic Depression-era American story set in a diner in a tiny Arizona desert town, where there are Petrified Forests both literal and symbolic. This story about saviors, the saved, and the consequence of personal choice was originally presented on Broadway in 1935, starring Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. Playwright Robert E. Sherwood said he based the Duke Mantee character, played by Bogart in both the Broadway and film versions, on infamous criminal John Dillinger. In preparation for the role, Bogart studied film footage of Dillinger to inform his portrayal of the complex and psychotic Mantee.

Director Terry McGovern, multi-talented founder and creative director of Marin Actors’ Workshop, has forged a truly enjoyable theatrical experience. McGovern’s staging, and set design by Eugene DeChristopher, are picture-perfect to show the characters in their proper setting, although at certain times “Forest” doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a period piece, a modern one, or both. True, there is a solid 1930s look and feel, with a nod to the social issues of the time that would please even Woody Guthrie. But occasional bursts of contemporary music can be a bit jarring, especially after you’ve settled in and convinced yourself you have traveled back in time

Excellent performances make this show well worth seeing. Ariana Hooper’s diner waitress Gabby Maple is a winsome caged bird in her personal petrified forest, with dreams that may never come true. A wordless opening sequence with Gabby shows a charming glimpse of her inner life in pantomime. Ken Bacon (also serving as the show’s producer) offers an appealing interpretation of Gabby’s romantic hero, the vagabond writer-adventurer Alan Squier. Vaguely reminiscent of Indiana Jones - minus the bullwhip - Squier is clearly jaded and world-weary, but retains the strong sense of humor and bitter irony that lie at the heart of the story.

Gabby’s affectionate grandpa, Gramps Maple (Wood Lockhart), supplies wisecracks that season the story like dashes of Tabasco. Lockhart displays keen wit and sustains credible empathy with the other characters. Other noteworthy performances: Stacy Thunes shows great style and comic timing as the fiercely sophisticated Mrs Chisholm; there’s also fine ensemble acting by Mantee’s gang of desperadoes.

Fledgling actor Daniel Flores as gangster-on-the-run Mantee has a compelling stage presence, but his performance comes off as monochromatic. To paraphrase 1930s-era critic and writer Dorothy Parker: his emotions run the gamut from A to B. More stage technique and nuance will give needed texture to this pivotal role. In a July 10th Sunday matinee performance, the first act started off uneven, with dialogue timing and pacing issues. But have no fear - the play takes off like a rocket and stays there, once the gangsters forcefully inject themselves into the story.

“The Petrified Forest” will satisfy anyone looking for an entertaining and uniquely timeless story with lots of action, romance and social awareness thrown in for good measure.

When: Now through July 31, 2011
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
3 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $20 to $24
Location: Novato Theater Company Playhouse
Pacheco Plaza Shopping Center
484 Ignacio Blvd, Novato CA 94949
Phone: 415-883-4498
Website: www.novatotheatercompany.org
Marin Actors’ Workshop: visit www.marinactorsworkshop.com or call 415-453-8858