SO BIG: Book-It stages Edna Ferber's novel of modern Texas

The curtain rises to reveal a vast sky against which stands the silhouette of an oversized cowboy. He overwhelms the stage in his boots and 10-gallon hat. So begins "Giant," a tale of love, prejudice and aggrandizement, Texas style, as adapted by Book-It and now playing at Seattle Rep's Leo K Theatre in Seattle Center.

The Texas portrayed in this staged version of the 1950s Edna Ferber novel is not a place in which many of us would feel comfortable. The moneyed Texans have achieved their wealth through subjugation of the Mexicans and theft of their land. They maintain it through a corrupt political process.

White women, for the most part, look pretty and do what their husbands tell them to do. Mexican women cook and scrub. Many labor in the fields. They have little access to schooling and almost no medical care. Their men work with the white owners to make these million-acre ranches productive, but are paid scarcely a subsistence wage.

Into this world comes Leslie Lynnton, a socially conscious, highly intelligent, emancipated woman from genteel Virginia who has lost her heart to Bick Benedict, the oversized cowboy whose silhouette opened the play. Bick came to Virginia to buy a spirited horse owned by the Lynntons. He returns to Texas with the horse and a spirited wife.

It's a new world for Leslie. Although its vastness enchants her, its social milieu shocks the lady from the East. She's appalled at the treatment of the Mexicans. There's no library. She resents being excluded from discussions of politics or ranch management. She doesn't understand the idioms. The diet includes items that revolt her.

She and Bick struggle to find a compromise between their two worldviews. In the meantime, they raise two children and watch as oil becomes king. Even Bick, the classic cattleman, finds himself giving in to the allure of oil. Bick and the other males of his family make a Faustian bargain with Jett Rink, the devil in cowboy garb.

Among the highlights of an all-around good cast are David Drummond as Bick Benedict and Jennifer Lee Taylor as Leslie Lynnton. Drummond has the size the part demands and brings to the role the power that must go with it. Taylor is beguiling as she struggles to maintain her independent ways in an environment that rejects such behavior.

Tim Gouran as Jett Rink has much of the magnetism of James Dean. Dean's portrayal of Jett in the movie "Giant" was his last role (he was killed in late 1955; the movie came out the following year). Eddie Levi Lee as Uncle Bawley does a fine job of showing the softer side of the Texas male.

The staging is particularly effective. Texas means horses and roundups, both of which present logistical problems on a small stage. Here saw-horses with saddles work very well, and pantomimed action gives a good sense of roping and branding cattle. But Leslie ought to put her feet in the stirrups if her riding scenes are to be believable. The massive backdrops of the sky nicely convey the sense of Texas space.

Although the novel was written more than 50 years ago, it has much to say about contemporary times. Texas values have found their way to national policies. And even here in the Northwest we must be concerned about the plight of migrant workers and the integration of the resident Mexican populations.

Book-It's co-artistic director Myra Platt did the adaptation and directed the production. In the playbill she talks about Edna Ferber's initial reticence to take on this story of Texas, concerned that it was just too big, just too complex to be conquered in a single novel. After some time, Ferber accepted the challenge, creating a very large story, one that seems too big to be accommodated on a small stage in less than three hours.

Its full complexity just can't be explored, and as a result, the play skims along the surface. Theatergoers can never fully enter into its depths or delve deeply into the connections between the characters. Book-It has made a mighty effort, and this production has wonderful components. Sadly, all of them together aren't quite enough to make this a thoroughly compelling evening at the theater.[[In-content Ad]]