Conflicts far beyond those supplied by the text complicate "The Chase," the final presentation of Woodland Hills Community Theatre's 2002 season at the West Valley Playhouse in Canoga Park. Horton Foote's 1952 account of a disillusioned Texas sheriff and the escaped convict bent on destroying him here finds the author's burgeoning early voice inadvertently clashing with a wildly misguided approach.
Unfolding on Victoria Profitt's resourceful dual location set, the narrative covers 48 hours in the life of its protagonist, Sheriff Hawes (Jon Berry). This undervalued, overworked peacekeeper of Richmond, Texas, cites spouse Ruby (Diana March) and the long-awaited child she is carrying as reason enough for his announced retirement. But there are other considerations.
These include Hawes' disenchantment with tracking runaways and the insufficient pay. More irritations come from Edwin Stewart (Howard Gibson), son of the town's banker, and the bombastic Hawkes Damon (Steve Whittaker), a prominent merchant who controls Richmond's political scene.
Such concerns seem trivial set beside life-term convict Bubber Reeves (Daniel Lennox), whose escape from the state penitentiary sets the plot in motion. A bona fide sociopath, Bubber is deaf to the entreaties of his accomplice (David Stifel), estranged wife (Valerie Hager) and tormented mother (Nadya Starr) to get out of state, now. He only wants revenge on the sheriff he blames for his incarceration.
What follows aligns character study, melodrama and morality play with Hawes' grim determination to bring his nemesis in alive while preventing town panic. Meanwhile, Bubber grows more unbalanced and lethal.
The original Broadway production -- starring John Hodiak, Murray Hamilton, Kim Hunter and Kim Stanley under Jose Ferrer's direction -- was a commercial failure, although such critics as Brooks Atkinson championed Foote's writing. They had valid reasons for doing so.
True, the script's architecture sometimes suggests a Southern Gothic written by Elmer Rice. Yet the comprehension of regional behavior, details of character and unexpected revelations of subtext all foreshadow the author destined to become what Robert Duvall termed "the rural Chekhov."
In a sincere attempt to master the drawling cadences of the writing, director Steve Ruggles fails to provide equivalent inner pace. It is one thing for the initially comic exposition to saunter along, quite another to maintain such excruciatingly measured tempos all night long.
Combining Acts 2 and 3 into an overstuffed second half only heightens the tortoise-like trajectory. This in turn upends the game performances, which largely feel half-formed. Berry's soft-grained James Cromwell quality, though appropriate, never develops beyond one wan note. This does not leave the amiable March much to play against, dulling their scenes of emotional resonance.
Lennox similarly lacks a core to his surface psychosis. Whittaker's promising start devolves into stock redneck postures, and while Starr's strained anguish bespeaks intelligent casting, her emoting fails to supply the denouement with tragic impact.
Their supporting colleagues fare slightly better, with Hager notably vivid, and Ruggles' own appearance as Deputy Tarl supplies the best acting of the evening. Regrettably, this gives the game away, as "The Chase" fails to generate enough steam to catch its own tail, let alone grip an audience.
Where: West Valley Playhouse, 7242 Owensmouth Ave., Canoga Park
When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
Ends: Dec. 1
Price: $16 to $18
Contact: (818) 884-1907
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes