Before he became a speechwriter for FDR, Robert E. Sherwood channeled his idealism through playwriting. “The Petrified Forest” is one such play, expounding on the virtues of rugged individualism and embracing the wildness of nature as the American way. The script is never too clear on how those virtues apply to more than a handful of people, or maybe the point is that modern life, with its citified ways, makes it hard for more than a handful of people to embrace those virtues.
Regardless, it’s fun to watch drifter intellectual Squire (Paul Fagen) and small-town dreamer Gabby (Caroline Neff, perfectly balancing naiveté and a dry wit) talk about big ideas as a means of foreplay. Squire shows up at Gabby’s father’s Arizona café just as Gabby is considering giving into the advances of All-American gas jockey Boze (Shane Kenyon) out of sheer boredom. Instead, Squire looks at her pictures and asks her to read poetry, and next thing she knows, Gabby’s in love. The timing is inconvenient, since the end of the second act sees the infamous Duke Mantee (Jamie Vann) and his henchmen using the café as a rest stop on their escape from the law after a massacre in Oklahoma.
Shade Murray’s direction keeps the large and talented cast moving, and the set and costume design does wonders in transporting us to 1930s Arizona. The production is a good balance between Sherwood’s idealism, the serious drama playing out among the characters, and the little touches of absurdity (like the old man who is genuinely excited to have murderers back in town, just like in the good old days). Still, the play is too slight and the themes too muddled to amount to more than a pleasing entertainment. But sometimes that’s all we need in the waning days of winter.