A Search for Meaning in 1934 America

The Petrified Forest--pictured are (L to R) Ariana Hooper as waitress Gabby Marples and Ken Bacon as drifter Alan Squire in a scene from "The Petrified Forest," presented by Ken Bacon Productions and Marin Actors' Workshop. Photo by Eric Chazankin

A remote diner located in the Arizona desert is the setting for Robert E. Sherwood's The Petrified Forest currently being produced by Marin Actor's Workshop and directed by Bay Area Critic's Circle Award winner for Best Director, Terry McGovern.  

The year is 1934, the heart of the Great Depression.  A down on his luck idealistic writer, Alan Squire (Ken Bacon) apparently bent on self destruction hikes to the edge of the Arizona desert and comes upon the Black Mesa Diner.  There he finds a kindred spirit in the young waitress, Gabby (Ariana Hooper) who seems to give his life clarity.  When a fugitive killer, Duke Mantee (Daniel Flores) overruns the diner and holds its inhabitants hostage, what emerges is a tableau of our country in one of its most trying historical periods.  The Petrified Forest is a look at an America not entirely unlike our own.  In doing so, Director Terry McGovern tried to make the characters more accessible, more in touch with the fears and hopes of the Great Depression.   

The Petrified Forest has  shrewd director in Terry McGovern and a strong acting company in the Marin Actor's Workshop, who make each role a gem.  The set design by Eugene De Christopher of a roadside cafe does a lot to establish both period and mood.  The wonderful costumes by Chris Andrews are authentic to the period as well as the old tunes on the radio.  

The environment is right, and the playing is splendid.  It is a big cast with every face and accent right and everybody's story either stated or implied.  The play begins with Jeremy Fay and Andrew Mendle as two telegraph linemen having a political argument.  Montgomery Paulsen as the cafe owner (Jason Maple) takes affront at their unpatriotic assumptions which are both real and funny. Ariana Hooper plays his daughter Gabby as bright, sensible and unmannered, a girl who could survive anywhere but who needs someplace better than this.  Jeff Taylor does wonders with the role of an ex-college football hero (Nevada Tech), Boze Hertzlinger. He makes him solid and authentic. Gabby's wild-eyed grandfather (Wood Lockhart) is a scene stealer and has some of the best lines in the play.  

So, enter Duke Mantee (Daniel Flores) and his henchmen, Jackie (Craig Logan), Ruby (Dave Crone) and Slim (Greg Davis).  Their reputation precedes them--six dead in Oklahoma City--and they've chosen Black Mesa to reunite with their women before moving on.  Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm (Mark Shepard and Stacy Thunes) a wealthy couple and their driver Joseph (Andrew Bozeman) wind up hostages while Alan finds, in dialog brilliantly delivered by Ken Bacon, a kindred spirit in Mantee, subtly and excellently played by Daniel Flores.  Another fine performance is by Bliss Leigh-Harshaw as Paula, the Mexican cook.  These actors blazing depths are blessings to Director Terry McGovern.  

The Petrified Forest continues through July 31, 2011 at the Novato Theatre Company Playhouse, Pacheco Plaza Shopping Center, 484 Ignacio Blvd., Novato.  Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.  To order tickets, call 415-883-4498 or go to novatotheatrecompany.org.

Flora Lynn Isaacson