Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2008
"I have never sought to write plays that primarily tell a story...I have been most concerned with dramatizing something of the dynamism I myself find in human motivations and behavior. I regard a play as a composition rather than a story, as a distillation of life rather than a narration of it..."
– William Inge
Have you ever wished that your life was more exciting and glamorous? That you were taller/shorter/thinner/had more hair/better teeth/nicer clothes? That the dishes and laundry would just do themselves? That your spouse was drop dead gorgeous and constantly attentive? That you never had to go to work and life would just be one long picnic? Of course you have. And every now and then you do get to dress up, leave the drudgery behind for a few hours, and go somewhere semi-exciting and that event becomes the focal point of your life for days before and after. That is what Picnic is all about.
One Labor Day weekend in the 1950’s a small town in Kansas is preparing for their annual picnic. Afterwards school will begin and life will go back to normal, but for this day these average people have “an excuse to let something thrilling happen in our lives,” as Helen Potts says.
Of course most years the picnic is merely a diversion and an idea of something thrilling, rather than an actual life changing event, but the day on which Picnic takes place is a life changing one for many of the characters.
Playwright William Motter Inge grew up in Independence, Kansas where his mother ran a boarding house, and he claims it was his childhood observation of three female schoolteachers who rented rooms in the house that inspired him to write “Picnic.” In fact, he wrote it three times – first as Front Porch a series of character sketches of various women, then in 1952 as Picnic, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Circle Award, and the Theatre Club Award; and again towards the end of his life as Summer Brave, which had a brief run on Broadway in 1975, shortly after Inge’s suicide in 1973.
There are indeed three middle-aged female schoolteachers in this play – Rosemary Sydney (meg Dooley), Irma Kronkite (Lorraine Chute) and Christine Schoenwalder (Jody Kordana). For “schoolteachers” read “single ladies” because not only did men frown upon their wives working in that time and place, but employers frankly wouldn’t allow them to work. Any career woman was by definition unmarried.
All the other women in the play are unmarried too. Flo Owens (Kathy Wohlfeld) has been abandoned by her n’er do well, alcoholic husband and lives alone with her two teenaged daughters Madge (Adrien Behn), a recent high-school graduate, and sixteen-year-old Millie (Sarah Naramore). Miss Sydney boards with the Owens. Their neighbor, Helen Potts (Lael Locke), with whom they share a backyard, eloped as a girl and was married for only a few hours before her forceful mother had the union annulled.
There are men about. Madge is being courted by a wealthy college boy, Alan Seymour (Michael Hitchcock), and Miss Sydney is keeping company with Howard Bevans (Tracy Trimm), a shopkeeper in a neighboring town. Millie is occasionally teased by the paperboy, Bomber Gutzel (Bradley Fay).
But that is all business as usual for these ladies. The catalyst that tilts their world on its ear on the Labor Day weekend we spend with them, is the arrival of Hal Carter (Mike Meier), a handsome young man and former fraternity brother of Alan’s, who Mrs. Potts gives a night’s lodging and a hot meal in return for his doing some chores. Hal is a lower-class boy with a sad childhood who got into college on a full football scholarship but flunked out. In fact his whole short life has been a series of spectacular failures, and his stay here is equally disastrous.
No one in Picnic is contented with their lot in life, even though none of them really have it too bad, except for Hal. Madge is pretty but not book-smart. She sees her life choices as either marrying Alan for the comfortable life he can provide, or continuing to work at the five-and-ten. Millie is brainy but still a gawky tomboy. She has earned a full academic scholarship to college, but longs for the attention her pretty sister gets. Alan has money and an education, but not looks. Hall has looks and not much else. The older women all see their lives as incomplete, wasted, and stifling.
This paints a very depressing picture and Picnic is actually quite a funny play because it focuses on those daily bits of trivia that simultaneously make our lives unbearably dull and hilariously funny.
This makes Picnic a great choice for a community theatre like Ghent because it is about average everyday people and problems. The play wears its age well because human nature is the one thing that doesn’t change over the centuries. The clothing and mores of these folks may seem dated, but their souls are easy to relate to. Director Ed Dignum has assembled a strong cast and skillfully moves them through Inge’s multiple plotlines.
The trick comes in casting the roles of Hal and Madge. Inge places great emphasis on the physical appearance these characters. They supposed to be extraordinarily good looking, so good looking that Paul Newman and Gwyneth Paltrow, each at the height of their youth and beauty, have been cast to play the plain-Jane roles of Alan (Newman in the original Broadway cast of 1953) and Millie (Paltrow in a fine 1991 production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival), rather than Hal and Madge. Without the luxury of a nation-wide casting call, small theatres are challenged to come up with a pair of performers who can both look and perform these roles.
While they are fine specimens of young adulthood, neither Behn nor Meier manages to convince us that they are quite as spectacularly good looking as Inge intends their characters to be. And they are not helped by the unflattering costumes Joanne Maurer has provided for them, a fact that is double peculiar since all the other actors are dressed very nicely in period costumes that fit their roles and their bodies.
And being a great beauty is very different from being beautiful. Mae West, a short, fat, flat-chested, and cross-eyed brunette, was one of the world’s great blonde bombshells with poetry and life-preservers still honoring her magnificent bosom. In real life, scrawny, bug-eyed Don Knotts was a great ladies’ man. These people were powerfully attractive without benefit of perfect features or figures. That innate attractiveness is hard to play, especially when you are a young and inexperienced performer, unsure yet of your own appearance and nervous on opening night.
So when I say that Behn and Meier did not completely capture the animal magnetism of Madge and Hal, I am not being mean or picky, I am being honest and saying that they both made a fine effort and came up just a little short. But just a little, and by the end of the show, when the opening night jitters had subsided and their characters were more fully revealed, I liked them both very much.
None of the other actors are asked to make such Herculean transformations, and when they are the focal points of the action things feel more natural and playful. Dooley is particularly outstanding as the desperate Rosemary, who sees life slipping past her and is determined not to end hers alone. Trimm is laughably fallible as her intended victim, er, husband who is not yet ready to give up his staid bachelor existence.
Wohlfeld also turns in an excellent performance as the mother struggling to help her daughters avoid all the mistakes she made and finally having to face the facts that they need the freedom to make their own decisions, right or wrong.
Hitchcock got a laugh the minute he walked on stage as the affable Alan, because he manages to be both handsome and doofy looking at the same time, an obvious under-dog in the mating game to Meier’s tall and powerful Hal right from the git-go.
Natamore has good energy and almost managed to be prettier than her pretty sister in some scenes through a fresh-scrubbed vivaciousness.
Locke, Chute and Kordana all appeal as the various other maiden ladies, although Locke and Kordana are playing roles intended for considerably older actresses. Each woman makes her role her own and brings a fresh voice and point of view to the proceedings.
As I said before, while Behn and Meier are not costumed to make the most of their physical assets, Maurer has created some really attractive ‘50’s costumes, notably for Dooley, Chute, and Natamore.
Joe Iuviene has built a wonderful realistic set for this show, strikingly similar to the handsome set R. Michael Miller built for last summer’s production of Mornings’ at Seven at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, a company with considerable larger facilities and resources than Ghent. Bravo!
A warning to parents of small children that, while it is all couched in polite 1950’s parlance and it all happens off stage, there is a lot of sex in Picnic. Don’t take children under 12 unless you are ready to do a lot of explaining about why everyone was so upset later on!
Picnic runs weekends through February 10, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs a spritely two hours, even with three acts and two intermissions! Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008