"The Petrified Forest," Robert E. Sherwood's hoary, melancholic and heavily symbolic drama from 1935, is one of those Depression-era plays that seem to show up in Chicago every few seasons.
In 2004, there was Michael Weber's deadly serious production at the Theatre at the Center, lovingly and lengthily exploring the play's mournful interest in what Sherwood saw as the impending death of American idealism (which perhaps explains why Sherwood stopped writing plays and became a speechwriter for President Franklin Roosevelt), and the need to wake up the increasingly impotent creative classes from their stupor. Kathy Scambiatterra directed a more intimate, progressive and much simpler studio version at the Artistic Home in 2006, moving at a faster clip through the story of a bunch of miserable characters (a trapped waitress, a crusty old grandpa, a wandering intellectual and so on) all held up at gunpoint in an Arizona diner by a brutal killer, famously played on film by Humphrey Bogart.
Now comes Shade Murray's take for Strawdog Theatre. It's certainly a full-tilt production of the play, employing a cast of 17, and it's certainly the most humorous of the three versions. Murray, generally a savvy director, treats the yarn with a certain self-aware theatricality, adding in various throbbing sound cues and staging the roadside action on a set from Nic Dimond and Brooke Larson that has an overt back-lot look. The performances are, in general, quite broad — intentionally so, it seems, as if Murray wants to play with the romance of the story, which focuses in part on a waitress (Caroline Neff) who dreams of Hollywood and Paris, and of making love to someone other than an Arizona kid who pumps gas and calls himself Boze (Shane Kenyon).
As far as that approach goes, the show has its pleasures — this play has always struck me as an interesting vista into the long-standing complexities of the relationship between Europe and the United States, contrasting soft landscapes and gentle ineptitude with the self-reliance demanded by a more brutal American West, where trees go to die and people try to get to California. And given its pathos and familiar character types, some framing of that artifice is perhaps a smart move for anyone attempting this play today.
But despite some amusing performances, you don't feel a lot here for anyone, nor sense some great clash of ideas. In terms of style, the conceit does not go far enough in any one direction, landing in a stylistic middle where the show does not always reside with certitude. Moreover, Murray does not solve one of this play's most difficult challenges: the need to sustain the credibility of a long second-act stretch when everyone is being held at gunpoint.
Although Neff is one of the best young actresses in Chicago, she's just never quite believable as an insecure girl who can't summon the courage to pursue her dreams. Nor does the show build enough sexual or emotional tension between Neff's Gabby and Paul Fagen's Squier, the sappy, fatalistic intellectual in whom she supposedly places her trust and sexual longing.
The tough and self-aware character that Neff builds, you find yourself thinking, would have hitched her ride out of this weird, atrophied forest long ago.
When: Through March 31
Where: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Tickets: $28 at 866-811-4111 or strawdog.org