'The Petrified Forest' a gangster story with a love triangle

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STOCKBRIDGE — "The Petrified Forest" introduced a then-unknown Humphrey Bogart to audiences when it opened on Broadway in 1935. He played fugitive killer Duke Mantee. Bogart reprised the role a year later in a now-classic film that co-starred Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. It cemented Bogart's image as Hollywood's tough guy.

Jeremy Davidson, who is playing Mantee in Berkshire Theatre Group's production of this rarely revived play, is no Bogart but he knows what it means to play violent men.

"I've carried a lot of guns and shot a lot of people in my career," Davidson said during a recent post-rehearsal interview at Lee High School auditorium, where he was joined by co-stars David Adkins and Rebecca Brooksher and their director David Auburn.

On Berkshire Theatre Group's 90th anniversary season, "The Petrified Forest" brings to Stockbridge the work of a prize-winning politically outspoken American playwright Robert E. Sherwood, who had personal ties to the former Berkshire Theatre Festival. Sherwood's sister, Cynthia Sherwood, appeared in several productions on BTF's Main Stage, including one, "Declasse," in which she co-starred with Ethel Barrymore. His older sister, Rosamond Sherwood, whom the playwright often visited in Stockbridge, was a BTF Trustee from 1953 to 1989.

Set in a diner-gas station at a crossroad in the Arizona desert not far from Petrified Forest Natural Park, Sherwood's play focuses on the dynamics among a group of people being held hostage by Mantee and members of his gang who are on the run after a shootout in Oklahoma City. They are heading for the border and have arranged to rendezvous at this lonely outpost with Mantee's moll and three other male members of his gang. Among the hostages are Gabby (played by Brooksher), the poetry-loving daughter of the diner/gas station's owner who dreams of traveling to France to visit the town were she was born, Bruges; and Alan Squier (Adkins), a divorced, disillusioned novelist and now drifter whom Sherwood describes as "shabby and dirty" but with "an afterglow of elegance" and a certain quality "that brings to mind the ugly word 'condemned.'" He is looking, he says at one point, "for something worth living for — and dying for."

The situation is fraught. "Under these pressures, people say things they wouldn't otherwise," Auburn said.

"What struck me about this play is how little we seem to have changed since then," Davidson said. "These are people at the edge of their lives, living at the edge of civilization." The play, Davidson says, asks questions about the nature of love, the nature of nature, the nature of our nature as human beings and whether these are questions worth exploring.

"The chance to explore [these issues in this play] is awesome," Davidson said.

"Alan comes from a place of broken dreams," Adkins said. "There is something of the spiritual outcast in him; a world view that is dark and running on empty."

It's a world view, Adkins says, "that can lead you to a feeling of despair. He is at the end of his road but his hope is to pass (his torch of truth and hope) on to someone who can take his place and he finds that in the form of this truthful, hopeful young woman [Gabby]."

"I think we are in a place now where these characters were then," Brooksher said. "There is a push and pull around us, That energy that drives us toward some kind of dream or light is more important when the world is in chaos; more necessary."

Auburn, who has directed five other plays at BTG — "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "A Delicate Balance," "Anna Christie," "Period of Adjustment" and "Sick" and is himself a Pulitzer Prize winner (2001) for "Proof" — readily said "yes" when he was approached by BTG CEO/artistic director Kate Maguire to take on this rarely seen play by a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner — "Idiot's Delight" (1936); "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1938); and "There Shall be No Night" (1940).

He was drawn to the project, he says, for its storytelling, its themes and for the challenge of taking on a play that has a large cast — roughly 20 characters — and a blazing gunfight near the end

It's a "crackerjack entertainment that doesn't exist anymore," Auburn says; written for a style of acting that has long since faded.

"It's a love triangle and gangster story," Auburn says; a drama and a social comedy "bracketed by politics.

"Its a portrait of a nation roiling in conflict."

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or jborak@berkshireeagle.com




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