Chicago Theatre Review
A Revisionist View of Inge
Picnic – American Theatre Company
For many of the younger theatergoers packed into the opening night audience, this new, revisionist production of William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama will be their first encounter with this sadly beautiful, poetic play. Will Davis, the new artistic director of ATC, has approached the classic very differently. This 1953 play about youth and loneliness, set in a small Kansas town during a particularly hot, humid Labor Day weekend, says so much about middle America, especially during the Eisenhower era. Older patrons, who perhaps best recall this play from its faithful 1955 film adaptation, will come into this performance expecting to see local actors who somewhat resemble William Holden and Kim Novak, the two stars of the movie. Boy, will they be shocked by Mr. Davis’ eye-opening, updated version of this play.
In a statement delivered opening night by Will Davis, and in the press materials provided to the critics, the director draws comparisons between Inge and Chekhov. He wisely observes that both playwrights were “interested in quiet lives of desperation and what that constant pressure can do to a person’s choices.” This pressure that Inge was reacting to was, in particular, the strain of living one’s life honestly and with dignity, amid the narrow, 1950’s view concerning sexual identity. He was also depicting the all-around conservative attitude toward everything that’s found in small town America, a theme prevalent in other literary works, such as Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Main Street. The need and longing to rebel, no matter when, and to bust out and escape the constrictions imposed by narrow minds, is seen in almost every character in this play.
Will Davis avoids casting his production with the traditional, stereotypes that older theatergoers might expect in these iconic roles. He also refrains from being cutesy and simply swapping genders, just for the sake of surprise. Instead the director searched for the right individuals who possessed “the relevant identities to capture that world and bring the depth of the text freshly to the audience.” In doing this, Davis has truly brought Inge’s play into the 21st century by making his play seem contemporary, almost radical, and just a little brazen.
The cast is commanded by some pretty impressive performances. Leading the ensemble is Molly Brennan as Hal. Instead of playing the character as the typical swaggering, brooding, animalistic young man most audiences have come to expect, Brennan instead brings out a wild, coltish quality in her portrayal. She embraces the character’s youth, his rakishness, while still portraying an honest, innocent quality, that better meshes with Malic White’s portrayal of Madge, the play’s leading lady. No Kim Novak here; White, with her punk, rebellious look, and an almost Tomboy nature, isn’t a smoldering, sultry siren, demure one minute and seductive the next. Her great beauty, that every character talks about in this play, seems to radiate more from her self-confidence, her strength, and an ability to truly relate to the other people in her world. Together, Brennan and White complement each other and make a great couple.
Two other wonderful performances are delivered by Patricia Kane, as Flo Owens, Madge’s cautious, overprotective mother. Although she never explains where he’s gone, Flo’s husband is no longer on the scene. Perhaps he passed away but, from a brief reaction Kane offers when asked about her man, it could be surmised that he and Flo were only together for just a few fleeting moments of romantic weakness. Whatever the case, Flo’s stalwart stand shows how close she and Madge are in personality.
The other standout performance comes from Laura McKenzie, as Flo’s neighbor, Helen Potts. Mrs. Potts’ ailing mother, who we never see, but to whom McKenzie gives voice, had Helen’s marriage annulled. Now her middle-aged daughter lives with her in servitude, forever at her harpy mother’s beck and call. To provide a bit of joy in her otherwise staid life, Helen invites handsome, young vagabonds, like Hal, to help out around the yard. It’s just an excuse to get the boys to roll up their sleeves or remove their shirts, so that Helen can enjoy a few glimpses of beefcake. McKenzie, usually seated near the edge of the stage, also provides voices for the other unseen, minor characters, as well as offering some lush musical accompaniment on the old upright.
One of the strongest, most exciting performances in this unusual production comes from Michael Turrentine, as Rosemary. She’s an unmarried, middle-aged schoolteacher, who rents a room from Madge’s mother. Turrentine’s portrayal is believable and realistic. Rosemary provides much of the play’s humor, particularly in this production, and Turrentine knows exactly how to handle comedy. Realizing that the summer’s coming to an end and another school year looms ahead, Rosemary feels trapped in an endless cycle. She has an emotional breakdown, after drinking a bit too much. Then, just before the titular Labor Day picnic, Rosemary unexpectedly takes out all her frustration in a vicious verbal attack on Hal.
But Turrentine’s very best moment is shared with the talented Robert Cornelius, as her boyfriend, Howard. During an especially heartfelt scene, filled with desperation and insecurity, she begs him, after years of dating, to finally marry her. It all plays out naturally and spur-of-the-moment. The words just tumble from Rosemary and she realizes she can’t take them back. But Rosemary knows that she’s finally opened up this can of worms and now she’ll have to deal with the consequences, whatever that might be. This well-directed, perfectly performed scene is alone worth the price of admission.
Will Davis’ fresh, revisionist view of William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece is stark and a bit unsettling. He’s turned “Picnic” upside down and made this old classic feel new and alive. If alive today, Inge would’ve probably enjoyed this contemporary, gender-neutral retelling of his play. The production is costumed with restraint by Melissa Ng and offers a sparse, uncluttered scenic design by Joe Schermoly. Abigail Cain must be commended, as well, for meeting the demands of so many unusual properties, particularly a quantity of cakes to be frosted, several baskets of laundry to be folded and countless tiny, lighted houses to be distributed all over the stage. This story of guarded dreams and restrained sexuality is a true ensemble production, brought into a new light by this novel, eye-opening 100-minute production that promises to provide a fresh take on this classic play.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 22-April 23 by American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the ATC box office at773-409-4125 or by going to www.atcweb.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.