The Petrified Forest ★★★★
That unmistakable signal of Western decay, the creak of a rusty metal sign swaying in a whistling wind, dominates Scott Killian’s preshow sound to kick off Berkshire Theatre Group’s first-rate mounting of the 1935-vintage The Petrified Forest on the right despairing note.
Bad enough that the run-down, Maple family-owned filling station and greasy spoon, on the Arizona desert’s edge, is a magnet only for dipsos, lost tourists and on-the-lam desperadoes. But playwright Robert E. Sherwood—a respected, articulate liberal voice of his day—sees the titular wasteland as a metaphor for post-WWI anomie. We know this because his mouthpiece, logorrheic vagrant Alan Squier (David Adkins), clocks the terrain as “the graveyard of the civilization that’s been shot from under us. It’s the world of outmoded ideas. Platonism—patriotism—Christianity—romance—the economics of Adam Smith—they’re all so many dead stumps in the desert.” That’s Alan Squier, folks, making America desiccated again, though he’ll have a Sydney Carton redemption moment to benefit dreamy Gabby Maple (an excellent Rebecca Brooksher) when the notorious Duke Mantee (Jeremy Davidson) shows up with gang and ordnance in tow.
As if in a brotherly gesture from one Pulitzer Prize honoree to another, David Auburn (Proof) has directed the play with admirable tension and texture, and cast it against type. Adkins’ growling, burnt-out cynic couldn’t be further from flutey Leslie Howard of stage and film. Mantee brought a nervy, weaselly Humphrey Bogart to fame, but Jeremy Davidson, tall, brooding, and mustachioed, seems to have stepped fatefully out of the Wild West disappearing all around them. The company is uniformly strong in mixing moments of comedy with the disturbing sense that a world is somehow coming to an end. And you’ve got to love it when an excitable Squier declares that he and the hoodlum, calmly prepping and lighting his cigar, are like the trees turned to stone beyond the rickety door:
SQUIER. That’s where I belong—and so do you, Duke. For you’re the last great apostle of rugged individualism. Aren’t you?
MANTEE. Maybe you’re right, pal.
Inexplicably, The Petrified Forest hasn’t much been seen professionally, absent from Broadway since 1943. But if you miss the last few days of its abbreviated Stockbridge run, never fear, it’ll resurface when producers become aware of its dozen juicy roles “name” actors would kill to play, exciting action, and timely thematic ambitions.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You ★★★★
By contrast, the ubiquity of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You is quite explicable indeed. Christopher Durang’s first big hit doesn’t just feature a meaty diva role, but exploits two perennial preoccupations of the American theater: making fun of authority, and criticizing the Catholic Church. That trifecta practically ensures a healthy, extended life.
The play’s centripetal force—an old-school, pre-Vatican-Council nun whose grown-up elementary school students return to demand accountability for the havoc she wrought—is interpretable in various ways. Its originator Elizabeth Franz was memorably starchy, while Diane Keaton (in the TV film) was a mugging standup comic. Yet both found their way eventually to one inescapable fact: This doctrinaire foe of reformer Pope John XXIII, this hander-out of cookies to those who mouth their Catechism properly and vicious slaps to the head to those who fall short, is insane. We’re talking full-out, bull-goose-looney here. (You can imagine her smacking Alan Squier across the face with a ruler: “Snap out of it!”)
In the BTG version Harriet Harris takes us to the nuthouse right from the start. Oh, she’s droll and subtle, all right: The Tony-winning star of Thoroughly Modern Millie, who channeled the spirit of Beatrice Lillie and then spiraled into a new dimension of funny, can’t help but pursue every laugh at Sister’s expense, and gets it, too. But there’s a distinct undercurrent of mania in her performance, an intimation that she in fact knows exactly how much bullshit she’s tossing around. Harris’s Sister Mary might well be a secret drinker, one so in conflict with herself that if she were to take her own life, somehow one wouldn’t be surprised.
Director Matthew Penn and lighting designer Alan C. Edwards are complicit in the effort, creating a gradual shift of mood that by the end practically smacks of German expressionism. It certainly makes one see Sister Mary…. differently, though BTG is less successful with the perennial companion piece The Actor’s Nightmare. As accountant George Spelvin, who dreams he is being thrust on stage into a play—four different plays, actually—he’s never rehearsed, Matt Sullivan is likable and relatable. But the shifts among plays drag, and George’s frenzy doesn’t sufficiently escalate, falling short of the insanity to which the text proceeds. Maybe Harris and Davidson used up all the crazy in the Berkshire budget.