“Giant” (music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, book by Sybille Pearson), Dallas Theater Center’s massive co-production with New York’s Public Theater, tells of the coming of age of a family and a country spanning the birth, death, bigotry, marriage and hate of three generations of Texans decided amidst the grim landscape of a Texas in the throes of violent industrialization. It is on the scale of “Gone with the Wind,” challenging the nostalgia for Texas history with the raw gangsterism of frontier life, which is presented with the unapologetic finesse of “Goodfellas.” It is the tale of men who did what they had to do in order to survive and protect the land they loved.
In 1925 Leslie (Kate Baldwin), a Virginia dilettante, marries the dashing ranch owner Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Aaron Lazar). Leslie learns not only to cope with the difficulties of living in what Bick lovingly calls “Heartbreak Country,” but also weathers the struggles that all families, especially ones on the crest of great change, must face. The rose-colored glasses are wrenched off of Leslie’s eyes when she stumbles onto one of the hovels the Mexican ranch hands live in – the hovels that are so different from the veritable castle that is her new home. Leslie begins an impossible mission against the insurmountable bigotry that divides the world she lives in, while Bick tries to hold onto a way of life that is threatened by the growing oil industry.
Family and bigotry are explored in even greater depth during the play’s last decade – the 1950s. The new generation longs for “new frontiers,” wanting to move out ranching and cross lines once declared impassable by deep-seated prejudices. The conflict between a father’s intractability and a son’s dreams is put into stark perspective by Bick’s uncle, Bawley (John Dossett), who tells his nephew, “They knocked the imagination out of you. They had to – you were the Benedict son.” But the final challenge is one much closer to both Leslie and Bick – their marriage. Leslie’s bleak comments during their final scene together sums up not only her relationship with her husband and his lover, Reata, but the last three decades of her life: “I can’t go back to being the hostess for a thing I don’t believe in … I said I’m not part of this. I am.”
The three-hour-plus production could easily have been bogged down in its lengthy, serious story, but Michael Greif’s slick directing makes the story glide through its thirty-year history and is supported with ease by both the music and the witty back-and-forth between the characters onstage. Mr. LaChiusa’s score spans the fanfares of Copland to Elvis Presley’s rock and roll and, at times, changes from uplifting to haunting so quickly that it mirrors the violent struggle on the stage. The simple, suggestive set designs created by Allen Moyer engage the imagination with their crisp imagery. When the oil wells first appear high above Reata, they hover over the stage like vultures, but they soon descend to block out the skyline and dwarf the mansion. The combination of a massive lazy Susan and a screen that alternately covers the upstage playing space and the orchestra perched above it adds layers of beauty and meaning. The rich costume design by Jeff Mahshie paints a people equally as rugged and beautiful as the land they inhabit. In the end, although the show lacks some needed character development, revelation and resolution, “Giant” is a beautiful tableau that is definitely worth the time needed to study it.
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: Dallas Theater Center
Tickets: $15 – $95
Student rush one hour before curtain