Regional Reviews: Seattle
Book-It takes a Giant Step
Also see David's review of Matters of the Heart
Edna Ferber's Giant, a whopping novel of 20th century Texas, made a wildly successful, three-hour plus mid-1950s film hit, which is best remembered today as being the last film James Dean completed before his untimely death. Book-It Repertory Theatre has achieved considerable success with adapter/director Myra Platt's robust, streamlined version of the tale, a multi-generational, family saga that was the Dallas of its day. It's the biggest Book-It show since the company's acclaimed two-part version of The Cider House Rules, and one of its best.
Set against the background of the sweeping political, business and civil rights changes in Texas from the '30s to the '50s, Giant is foremost a love story between an odd couple: Jordan "Bick" Benedict from a wealthy Texas cattle family empire, and his beloved Leslie, a spirited, forward thinking, liberal-minded Virginian. The meet on her home turf, and before you can say Big D, they are wed and off to his ranch. Presiding over the ranch is Bick's tough yet ultimately tender-hearted sister Luz, who is threatened by the obviously unshakable Leslie, and lurking in the distance is the spoiler of the story, dirt poor, swaggering and pouty lipped Jett Rink, who blames the Benedict's for his Father's disappearance, and has a yen for Leslie as well. Over some 20 years many events occur, from Luz's untimely (and vaguely black comedy) death, Jett's rise to fame and fortune via oil found on the little parcel of Benedict land he was given after his Father's death, and the birth of Bick and Leslie's children Jordy, who forsakes the family biz to become an MD (and more scandalously marries a Mexican gal), and his tomboyish sister, nicknamed Luz in memory of her late Aunt.
Platt's adaptation is solid for the first two acts, and a bit hit and miss in the third where a lot happens, but way too quickly and sketchily. This may well be a fault inherent in the Ferber novel, but it seems like a less frenetic wrap-up (a wild and wooly showdown between Jett and the Benedict's at Jett's luxury hotel). However, Platt's directorial efforts are fairly flawless, especially given Book-It's traditional spare and suggestive style of staging its shows. More imagination and creativity has gone into Platt's conjuring up of scenes with cattle and horse flesh than I have seen in anything since The Lion King. And in the large, capable cast of 20 there are several standout performances.
Chief among these is Jennifer Lee Taylor as Leslie Lyntonn Benedict, who looks something like a young Grace Kelly with an appropriately coltish spirit reminiscent of early film performances by Katharine Hepburn. Taylor never downplays the character's strength and convictions, yet is always very human and effortlessly likable. Tall, lanky and as at home as can be in Western garb, David Drummond is a satisfying Bick, constantly enamored and exasperated with his headstrong wife and slowly learning to bend to inevitable changes in the Kingdom of Texas. V. Joy Lee is a blowzy treat as Bick's sister Luz, making her scenes before the early demise of her character really amount to something. Lee's real-life hubby, the venerable Eddie Levi Lee arrives onstage just as his wife's character is dispatched, and makes and endearing old codger as Bick's salty Uncle Bawley. With only act three in which to establish themselves, Noelle Wilcox as Young Luz and Colin Byrne as Jordy are both impressive, and Wilcox's physical and emotional similarity to Taylor is a real casting coup. As Vashti, the plain and plump gal Bick spurned for Leslie, Margaret Phillips Carter is both amusing and sympathetic. Laboring in the long shadow of James Dean, actor Tim Gouran gives the one off-key performance in the piece, settling for a predictable blend of sullenness and hostility which never makes us understand Leslie's subliminal attraction to him.
Jessica Trundy's lighting design is outstanding, evocative of the big Texas skies, and Matthew Smucker's lean and spare scenic design works well. Carisa Bush's costume designs are right out of a Neiman Marcus catalogue, and Michael McQuilken's original music and performance of it serve as ideal underscoring. Book-It is one of Seattle's most consistently on the money theatre companies, and Giant is a ten-gallon hit for them.
Giant, a Book-It Repertory Theatre production, runs through May 1, 2005 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Leo K stage, in Seattle Center. For more information, go online to www.book-it.org.- David-Edward Hughes