“Petrified Forest” a beautiful, heartbreaking slice of Americana

“Petrified Forest” a beautiful, heartbreaking slice of Americana

A good piece of art is timeless. An exceptional book, movie, painting or play can continue to impart its message for years after its creation, and there’s something wonderful about that, how that ties us to the author and their era with only words to make the connection. Four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, published in 1935, is indeed a very good piece of art, and the moving performance at Berkshire Theatre Group brings his characters to life for us as if it was written just yesterday.

Set entirely in a small diner/gas station in Arizona on the edge of the Petrified Forest during the Great Depression, we meet the Maple family, who run the diner: Jason (Sean Cullen), who served in World War I, his father Gramp (John Thomas Waite), a loquacious old-timer who loves to regale everyone with stories of the Old West, and Gabby (Rebecca Brooksher), Jason’s daughter, who dreams of escaping Arizona for France, where her mother lives, and studying art, but doesn’t have the money to do so. Alan Squier (David Adkins), a down-on-his-luck writer hitchhiking across the country, wanders in and he and Gabby form a deep connection. Suddenly, Duke Mantee (Jeremy Davidson) and his gang appear; there’s a manhunt for Duke as he’s killed a number of people in Oklahoma, so he holds everyone captive in the diner while he waits for the rest of his gang to arrive – and Alan realizes that Duke may provide both himself and Gabby the escape they deserve.

The team behind this production – above and beyond the storied playwright, of course – are phenomenal. David Auburn, Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning author of Proof, directs (and does so flawlessly), which in itself is enough to give a theater fan chills, but Wilson Chin’s set design is stunning, as well; the diner he’s created is utterly realistic down to the knick-knacks and décor on the walls and the huge (fully functional) neon sign at the top of the set. Scott Killian’s sound design is to be lauded as well – from the sound of the neon to the wind in the desert to the realism of gunshots, everything is fully on point.

The cast – a large one, 13 actors altogether – worth together seamlessly. Adkins is heartbreaking as Alan – what a wonderful character for an actor to get to portray, and he gives it his all. His chemistry with Brooksher sparkles and Alan is fully three-dimensional; we care about him immensely. Brooksher is perfect as Gabby: longing but not lost, wanting but strong. You see why Alan would be immediately taken with her and you know, no matter what, she will be fine. Davidson’s Mantee could easily have been a cliché, but he shines, even when just quietly watching the action around him – and when in action, he’s electric.

This beautiful, heartbreaking slice of Americana, directed, acted and staged with such care and precision, reminds us how fine art endures – and what a wonderful thing for a theater to show us.

“The Petrified Forest;” Berkshire Theatre Group, 6 East St., Stockbridge, MA; through August 25; $66; Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission; 413-997-4444;

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