"Sassafras" at Saddleback College struggles to make the leap from printed page to life on stage, but instead it winds up as a series of intriguing yarns in search of a focus.
The 1983 novel by Jack Matthews resists translation into play form, despite the attention to language evident in director Lynn Wells' adaptation.
It's easy to see what attracted Wells to the project. These tales of the Old West offer a wealth of original characters and lively language as they relate the adventures of Thaddeus Burke, a phrenologist, or "head reader," who traveled from town to town in the mid-1800s, examining clients' characters by feeling the shapes of their skulls.
Burke believes that he has a tendency toward coincidence--"Some people are drawn to coincidences the way a magnet draws iron filings," he muses at one point. The play goes on to confirm this with enough characters and coincidences to fill a Dickens novel.
A refreshing sense of self-irony peppers Burke's yarns. When he is passing through Baltimore early in his career, he is attracted to a pretty singer, failing to recognize her as the city's most notorious madam. A bystander hastens to fill him in. "You a stranger in town?" the local inquires dubiously. "I guess I might be more of a stranger than I thought," Burke replies. It turns out that the Old West--far from being as wide open and anonymous as legend would have it--could be a gossipy small town simply stretched over the plains, and that concept provides a thoughtful backdrop to the action.
But the narrative line, spread over the passage of many years, is hazy. Wells has constructed a logical framework to these stories, one that has Burke relating his adventures in flashback to a very patient customer. But by nature, the stories consist of fits and starts, which makes for some very awkward staging and pacing.
It's also hard to get a fix on Burke, played by Terry Inglis, which leaves a hollow center at the core of the story. The frequent and abrupt transitions from scene to scene work against sustaining character development and leave several of the story lines dangling. As a result, some important frames of reference never come into focus, notably Burke's feelings for the pathetic Lily, affectingly played by Debbie Korkunis, the singer-madam who nurses him back to health after a gunshot wound.
The most interesting character turns out to be Bone, played with earnest appeal by Jock Patterson. Bone is a giant of a man reduced to traveling with a freak show, where he's billed as "Tombo, the World's Largest Man." Bone's comments on growing up different, his puzzling over the inexplicable hand that fate so callously has dealt him, provide the play's most poignant moments. They are just one more example of the vivid parts here that never quite add up to a satisfying whole.
SASSAFRAS Produced by the Saddleback College department of theater arts. Book: Adapted by Lynn Wells from a novel by Jack Matthews. Directed by Lynn Wells. Principal cast members: Terry Inglis, Debbie Korkunis, Charles Lamb, Damian Janush, Jock Patterson, Heath McMillan, Christine Freeman, Thomas Minter, Ronnie Watkins, Ron Lance. Scenery: Wally Huntoon. Costumes: Charles Castagno. Lighting: Kevin Cook. Plays at 8 p.m. today and Saturday, with a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. Closes Sunday. Tickets, $5; seniors and students, $4. Saddleback College Studio Theatre, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. (714) 582-4656.