"Travels with Charley": a travelogue that pokes along

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The revelatory cross-country road trip is one of the mainstays of American literature and film, from Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" to "Easy Rider" and onward.

For obvious reasons, it's harder to pull off such a journey in the restricted confines of a live stage production, and to suggest the passage of miles and shifts of landscape and culture.

In Book-It Repertory Theatre's new adaptation of "Travels with Charley," a full-sized green pickup is the onstage prop that bears Nobel Prize-winning American novelist John Steinbeck and his standard poodle, Charley, on their own voyage of discovery. And in Jane Jones' sure-handed staging, and Craig B. Wollam's maps-and-slides scenic design, the travelers' route from New England to Southern California and back is traced simply yet evocatively.

More difficult, though, is the task of turning Steinbeck's 1962 travelogue into a gripping tale or continuously insightful social commentary. Jones, her good actors and adapter David Quicksall don't manage that, in a show that ambles and rambles along amiably, but rarely moves into high gear.

At its best, "Travels with Charley" is a mobile time capsule from the year 1960, with snapshots of the vicious civil-rights battles in the South, the polarizing Nixon vs. Kennedy presidential election and the explosive development of the West Coast states.

Steinbeck is portrayed by fine Denver character actor John Hutton. Hutton's lean, weathered face and stiff gait aptly personify the rugged individualism associated with Steinbeck, and his reluctant coping with fragile health and advancing age.

The actor also conveys Steinbeck's grumpy irritation with the country changing around him, often not (in the author's estimation) for the better. His disdain for the bustling big city Seattle has become, his grief for the fading, rough-and-tumble California of his youth are understandable, yet curmudgeonly too.

Only in his passionate revulsion for a group of racist women "cheerleaders" who gather daily to heckle the black children attempting to integrate New Orleans public schools, and admiration for a militant young civil-rights worker (Earl Alexander) he picks up hitchhiking, does Steinbeck seem to embrace the notion that change can also be a positive force. (In his final years, the writer's liberal politics became increasingly conservative.)

Much of "Travels with Charley," though, is devoted to Steinbeck's mild, roadside encounters with a series of chatty older men (each delineated, with flair, by Brian Thompson), and to his comradeship with Charley.

Understandably, Charley is portrayed by a human actor — an energetic, versatile one: David Goldstein, who steals quite a few scenes with his rambunctious affection, mock-French exclamations and skeptical questioning of his master.

The dog antics, while diverting, can get gratuitous: Do we really need the graphic account of Charley's bowel and bladder distress?

When a narrator's only real companion is his dog, and his solitary musings tend to the dour or nostalgic, expect dramatic tension and conflict to be scarce. And so goes this poky, highly episodic, 2-1/2-hour expedition.

In a way, "Travels with Charley" is one of Book-It's braver choices of material: Unlike Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday" (which the company adapted earlier) it contains a lengthy narrative but no plot. Book-It carries off the project with typical grace but little of the dynamism that marks the troupe's best work.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Now playing

"Travels with Charley." Produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre. Runs Thursdays-Sundays through July 3 at Seattle Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$26 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).