In quest of America: Book-It travels with Steinbeck, brilliantly

Summer's almost here, and, for many of us, that's the time to take to the road. "Travels With Charley," Book-It's final production for this season, is the trip of a lifetime. I strongly recommend you go along with them as they reincarnate John Steinbeck and his dog Charley and send them on a journey across America.

As Steinbeck says early in the production, "We don't take a trip - the trip takes us." His trip takes us through a landscape and through time. In 1960, Steinbeck was almost 60 years old, having trouble with his writing and recovering from his first heart attack. He decided that both his mental and physical health required that he renew his connection with the American people about whom he wrote.

His family and friends thought him foolhardy. They told him not to go. Charley, however, was as enthusiastic as his master, and the two of them set off in a Ford truck, outfitted as a camper. From New York to Maine they drove, then across the country and back, through tiny towns and major cities, to historic sites and awesome national parks. Steinbeck stopped in dumpy motels, camped by pristine streams, and all the way he talked to the people he met.

It is probably more accurate to say that he listened to the people he met. Like all really good conversationalists, he was a master at asking the questions that allowed his companion of the moment to talk about what is everybody's favorite subject: ourselves and our ideas. In "Travels" we learn, as Steinbeck did, about the values of America in 1960, and in the process we gain rich insights into the America of today.

The stage floor is painted as a road map, and in its center is the truck. Projected on a screen behind it are the images of the America he visited. That's all we need.

Steinbeck's experiences are funny, poignant and thought-provoking. There's the scene with the tough, gas station he-man from Montana and his genteel son who, to his father's indignation, took a hairdressing course and longs for the bright lights of New York. As the musicians play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Steinbeck speaks of the power and glory that accrue to a hairdresser, almost convincing the father that he has nothing to worry about.

Other experiences are horrifying - in particular, Steinbeck's encounter with Southern racism when schools are desegregated. Through an amazing feat of stagecraft he and we see angry women, their faces contorted by hate, scream invectives as crowds cheer them on. The object of their scorn is a tiny, black girl in a sparkling-white dress and socks and black Mary Jane's. Her enormous eyes stare at this scene as she slowly makes her way into school.

As a country we have come so far, yet we still have so far to go.

Steinbeck and the people he meets reflect on our throwaway society, the speed of technological and cultural change in this country, on loneliness, masculinity, nuclear power, urban sprawl, the spread of highways across the land. The pluses and minuses of modern life strike home as the screen behind the truck fills with images of Seattle in the 1960s and Steinbeck compares that with what he knew from his past.

The whole cast is outstanding. John Hutton is Steinbeck, wry, curious, compassionate; afraid that old age will make him less than what he was, unwilling to surrender to life lived less than at its fullest. David Goldstein, who has the difficult task of playing Charley, gives the animal wisdom, irony and vulnerability while maintaining the fiction that he really is a dog. Brian Thompson, too, deserves special mention; he plays a variety of roles and is grand in each one.

The versatile Theresa Holmes and Dan Dennis also play many roles, all with panache. In addition, they provide well-integrated musical interludes that enrich the action. Music is an important part of this production, both the live music and the taped cuts that range from Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel" to Woody Guthrie paying homage to the Columbia River.

David Quicksall adapted the book for the stage, and Jane Jones, Book-It's co-artistic director, directed. The story flows with the vitality of one of the mighty rivers that Steinbeck passes on his journey. The direction is brilliant.

Even if you have another journey planned for this summer, make sure you travel America with John Steinbeck and Charley.[[In-content Ad]]