Well, shoot, it's good to have Book-It Repertory Theatre back on reasonably solid ground again, even if it is in goddurned Texas. The company's travels have been a trifle trying of late, right up through its enervating trip to England for the recent Rebecca. But the world-premiere stage adaptation of Edna Ferber's 1952 novel Giant (at the Leo K. Theatre in the Seattle Rep through Sunday, May 1; 206-216-0833) lassos at least a little of the energy and much of the eloquence that's been missing from the usually dependable troupe. If anything, the show is much like the state by which Ferber was so taken: bloated, sometimes blundering, but enriched by people whose personalities are engaging enough to forgive all other shortcomings.
You sense things are going to work right away, when the curtain opens on a big, beefy cowboy silhouetted against a grand blue sky. The chance to illustrate Ferber's vast contemplations brings out the best in adapter/director Myra Platt and her technical crew. The show looks terrific, highlighting the singular blend of crafty economy and imaginative expanse that has been a Book-It trademark. Platt brings off wonderful set pieces: the comic horror that upscale Leslie Lynnton (Jennifer Lee Taylor) experiences at her first down-home barbecue as the new bride of Texas cattle baron Jordan "Bick" Benedict (David Drummond); the defiant demise of Bick's ornery sister Luz (V. Joy Lee, right on target); cowboys in a choreographed roundup, riding sawhorses and jumping around each other in slow-motion exhilaration. Costume designer Carisa Bush gets both the gaudiness and the here-rugged, there-winsome generosity of Southwestern fashion, and Jessica Trundy's lighting ennobles the witty scenic metaphor Matthew Smucker has come up with: The Mexican missions, the oil rigs, and even the imposing Benedict "big house" are all miniatures—Ferber's characters really are the giants here.
And they're so well played that, honestly, you won't be distracted by comparisons to the 1956 film version, which famously covered James Dean in black gold. There isn't a note or nuance missed in Platt's large, lively company. Standing firm at the center is Taylor's Leslie, whose fascinated and occasionally furious sense of dislocation as a Texan-by-marriage is our entry into a story about a state, and a country, in the midst of jarring, gigantic upheaval. After Leslie faints at the aforementioned barbecue, a doctor assures Bick that she's "as wiry as a steel spring, and as indestructible," and, sure enough, it's a supple strength that Taylor finds in the role. She builds on the confident inner radiance that distinguished her Elizabeth Bennet in Book-It's Pride and Prejudice to project the insistent integrity of a woman determined to see neither her great love nor her conflicting ideals destroyed by the inherent difficulties of progress. (Leslie's idea of romantic banter with the bemused Bick is giddy reflection about America's imperialism: "We really stole Texas, didn't we?") Leslie may be a lady, but she won't flinch when classless ranch hand Jett Rink (Tim Gouran)—whose upwardly mobile treachery is just one symbol of Ferber's piercing, prescient view of American social change—looks over her skinny frame and leers, "The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat."
Gouran gets Jett's carnal malice just right, swaggering with the nervous menace of an overgrown boy, and Drummond has the physical and emotional presence of a good man wrestling with his own ignorance (his and Taylor's seamless, practically split-second transition from newlyweds to middle-aged marrieds late in the show does them both proud). Yet the production starts to teeter when Taylor's composure isn't available to give it balance. Act 1, which mostly concerns Leslie's initiation into her new world, is fleet and refreshing, carried by the actress's poised athleticism with the thrust-and-parry of Ferber's feisty narrative; by the half-point of Act 2, when Platt has to consider the whole of what Ferber wants to say, the show falls into a bit of a slog. Platt's script smartly contains everything that should sucker punch us into recognition—how could Ferber have known so keenly that oil-based ambitiousness would break the American spirit?—but directorially she hasn't constructed an evening that builds to a final wallop. The production is, perhaps, too much about slugging across individual scenes and not enough about winning the fight. You know what Platt means when she drapes the denouement in an oversized Texas flag and leaves a soused Gouran railing at the center, but it doesn't feel like the ending.
Ah, well, if Giant is, finally, too big yet not broad enough, it's a welcome return to what Book-It does best—remind us of the wealth of literature, then drop at least some of its riches at our feet.