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THEATER REVIEW : But for Whitmore, 'Dirt' Would Be Mud

March 26, 1994|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — James Whitmore, the marvelous star of such one-man shows as "Will Rogers' USA" and "Give 'Em Hell, Harry" has carved himself another juicy part in "Dirt," which had its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe Theatre on Thursday.

Unfortunately, Whitmore's portrayal of an aging, ailing farmer in this three-character piece is the only one worth watching. Look past his passion and virtuosity and all you have is an "On Golden Pond" or "Foxfire" wanna-be--a cliche-ridden play about intergenerational conflict, with stock characters and hit-you-over-the-head symbolism.

Whitmore plays Sonny Hardman (and he's a hard man--get it?), a tough old bird whose memory has begun failing him since his wife died. His estranged son, Zac (John Dennis Johnston), comes to check on him. They fight and reconcile. In between, Eleanor, a waitress from the local diner (Annette Helde), brings the old man a cherry pie and becomes the convenient love interest for the son.

The show is about the changing of the guard. Sonny needs to pass on his love for the land before he can die peacefully. The son's growing adeptness with farming shows he's on the way to becoming the father with whom he fights so bitterly. The woman wants to become the new woman of the house.

The play would be as neatly turned out as a bed with hospital corners if the conflicts didn't seem so trumped up.

So why is the father angry with the son? A grab bag of reasons is offered: The son served in the Vietnam War (turns out the father was against the war--a rather unusual point of view for a man of his generation and background), Zac didn't fight the father for control of the farm, Zac is young and the father's old.

And why is the son in conflict with the waitress? Ostensibly because she thinks Zac's not being nice to his father; but really, it seems, just to make their attraction more exciting. In theory, anyway.

What the play does offer is a showcase for Whitmore. And the veteran actor radiates a star quality that makes it hard to pay attention to anyone else. His bushy eyebrows stand out sharply like a challenge to all comers. His stooped, bowlegged walk suggests years of working the land. He speaks volumes with a look, a smile, a hesitation.

A lucky thing, because the words could use a lot more work.

Director Andrew J. Traister has done more subtle work with other plays that have more fully realized characters, such as "Light Sensitive" and "Remembrance" at the Old Globe. But if his goal was to give Whitmore a chance to shine, he has accomplished that.

Odd that playwright Bruce Gooch, who grew up on a family farm, doesn't give us any sense of the troubles family farmers have had in recent years. He captures the flavor of day-to-day farming but doesn't make it clear what these people are living on until the crops come in--the father's money? The son's?

Ralph Funicello's set of weathered woods and hard-scrabble weeds pushing through the dirt works seamlessly with Robert Peterson's lush lighting and Jeff Ladman's sound. The worn, faded costumes by Deborah M. Dryden are similarly evocative. Composer Valerie Mackendenhances the romantic mood.

Although Gooch captures the romance of an old man and his land, it's not enough. Perhaps because Whitmore was involved in this project even before it premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Mass., last season, the show was skewed around his character.

But Gooch needs to create other compelling parts if he wants anything to bloom in this "Dirt."

* "Dirt," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends May 1. $23-$34. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. James Whitmore: Sonny Hardman

John Dennis Johnston: Zac Hardman

Annette Helde: Eleanor Martin

A play by Bruce Gooch. Directed by Andrew J. Traister. Sets by Ralph Funicello. Costumes by Deborah M. Dryden. Lights by Robert Peterson. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Composer Valerie Mackend. Stage manager Peter Van Dyke.

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