Thursday, October 8, 2015

Picnic – Youth, Dreams, and Disillusion Unfold at Dramaworks

In the context of the placid decade of the 50’s, and its small town mid-western setting, Picnic by William Inge took on the daring theme of sexual repression.  It also encapsulated classic literary themes of the American Dream and disillusionment. Inge was from Kansas and the characters he wrote about were emblazoned in his mind and empathetically translated to drama.

It is a Pulitzer Prize winning play, well worth seeing again, and it demands careful orchestration to bring a modern audience into yesteryear and make this still relevant.  It doesn’t help that burnished in one’s mind is the movie version with the woefully inappropriate, over-aged William Holden playing Hal, the young man who energizes the action (as much as I admire Holden as a screen actor). But Bill Hayes, the play’s director, has indeed avoided the “overly theatrical approach” and stereotypical characters, to create more “realistic and complex characters” with an ideal cast.

Inge prefaces his play with a Shakespearean quotation from Sonnet 94:  The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet. If you read the entire Sonnet, particularly what follows that quotation, it establishes one of the central themes of the play, a person is defined by his/her behavior, and there are a number of choices made by the characters in the play that carry significant consequences.

Picnic takes place in the shared yard – so often the gathering point in neighborhoods of the 1950s when people actually connected with one another-- of Flo Owens and Helen Potts. Upstage there is a fence that opens to an alley and beyond that is a panorama of the town buildings.  The set is very important in this intricately arranged play, and scenic design has always been one of PBD’s many strong points

Act I introduces the characters with only some mild hints of what is about to unfold later. Mrs. Potts, the elder stateswoman of the neighborhood, has given some work to a stranger in town, Hal Carter, a young down on his luck drifter, in exchange for something to eat.  He has jumped a freight train to this small Kansas town to see his former college fraternity brother, who he considers his last friend in the world, Alan Seymour, hoping to find a job through Alan’s wealthy father.  Hal had flunked out of college (where he was a star athlete) and had tried unsuccessfully to make his way in Hollywood.  Hal, his shirtless body on display for most of the first act, becomes a lightning rod for some of the lonely women in the play. At first he is only casually noticed by Madge Owens the high school homecoming queen who her mother, Flo, has been plotting for her to marry Alan for the secure life of a country club belle. 

Hal and Madge
Hal is played by Merlin Huff, in his PBD debut, parading his manly presence around the stage like a badge, stomping and posturing, yet inwardly feeling totally insecure. It is a difficult role as Inge provides for little nuance and character development. He is a free spirit, who is yearning to become a “success” which nothing in his dysfunctional background has prepared him to achieve.

His friend, Alan, is convincingly played by Taylor Miller, also making his PBD debut, with his wholesomeness, and innate confidence from having grown up in the “right” family and following their expectations, only conscious of Madge’s desirability as a beauty. He looks up to Hal as a rebel and admires his animal attraction to the women he encounters.

The key role of Flo, who is trying to orchestrate the lives of her two daughters, hoping that they will marry well, is outstandingly played by PBD veteran Patti Gardner, capturing her anxiety that her daughters should not have disappointing lives as she’s had.  Flo’s husband had walked out on her after the birth of their second child so she is very wary of a man such as Hal. She is a strong mother lion guarding her cubs.

Alas, for Madge, she feels her beauty may be a detriment, as revealed in an exchange between Madge and her mother in the first act:

Alan and Madge
MADGE.  What good is it to be pretty?
FLO.  Well…pretty things…like flowers and sunsets and rubies… and pretty girls, too….they’re like billboards telling us that life is good.
MADGE. But where do I come in?
FLO. What do you mean?
MADGE. Maybe I get tired being looked at.
FLO. Madge! Don’t talk so selfish!
MADGE.  I don’t care if I am selfish.  It’s no good just to be pretty.  It’s no good!

Madge is played by the appropriately beautiful Kelly Gibson, who portrays the essence of a young woman tottering on the brink of full blown womanhood and what the future holds for her, trying to understand who she is other than what the mirror and people tell her she is.  There are constant references to that power she holds over men, but in a sense she remains pure (a “summer flower” not tarnished by “base infection” as Shakespeare puts it), trying to break out to find something more relevant than her looks alone.  As she says so poignantly in the second act to her mother,

MADGE. It just seems that when I’m looking in the mirror that’s the only way I can prove to myself I’m alive.
FLO.  Alive?
MADGE. Yes.  Lots of the time I wonder if I really exist.

Flo’s boarder, Rosemary Sydney, is a school teacher, who hangs out with two other unmarried teachers, and has a long-time beau, Howard Bevans.  The story of Rosemary’s and Howard’s relationship is juxtaposed to the one which emerges between Hal and Madge, two middle aged people, who have let their years slip by vs. the story of youth and their expectations of the future.  

Margery Lowe’s performance as Rosemary is terrific. She is a woman who has had failed romances in the past and knows she is on the precipice of spinsterhood, especially after seeing the young people she is surrounded by, a desperation Lowe practically breathes from every pore.  (And Lowe “cuts a mean rug” even after Rosemary becomes intoxicated.)  

Another PBD familiar face, Michael McKeever, undertakes the role of the ambivalent Howard with an engaging homey affability.  Fear of commitment shadows Howard who seems set in his ways.

Those are the basic ingredients for Inge’s brew that boils over in Act II as the town’s annual Labor Day picnic is about to take place.  Madge’s slightly younger, brainy, tom-boyish sister Millie has no date and Mrs. Potts (to Flo’s horror) suggests that Hal becomes Millie’s escort.  Millie suddenly becomes obsessed with her looks as well (deeply jealous of the attention her sister commands) although throughout most of the play she remains true to her intellectual stand-offish self.  In a sense she represents Inge’s presence in the play. (She is reading Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad Café, which in some ways parallels the play.) Maren Searle, makes her PBD debut as a Millie and is on stage most of the time, maturing right before our eyes, and while she fights with her older sister, she deeply loves her as well. Searle brings an acting maturity to her role of a sixteen-year old.

Meanwhile, poor Hal, as much as he tries to “fit in” with everyone, he just seems to say the wrong thing and becomes self conscious about everything he’s about to say.  In a sense, he’s an innocent, another “summer flower.”It doesn’t help that his friend Alan has indeed offered him a job, but as the lowest manual laborer which Alan does not let Hal forget.  Still Hal wears his optimism, tempered by humiliation, on his shirtless sleeve.

Hal has Mrs. Potts,  – so amiably and skillfully played by the seasoned PBD actress Elizabeth Dimon -- in stitches telling stories about his father – who he obviously loved in spite of his  alcoholism and jail time.  Mrs. Potts, her mother’s caretaker who we only hear offstage, sees the inherent goodness in Hal and accepts his youthful, manly countenance without the criticism or jealousy of the other mature women.  Perhaps that is because of her own impetuous love affair when she was very young resulted in a marriage that her own mother had annulled only 24 hours later. She understands the urges of youth and acts as an observer, and a reconciler of some of the ensuing conflict.

Howard produces a bottle of liquor to share before the picnic, the truth serum which particularly Rosemary has more than a swig of, erupting in a vicious attack of Hal, and everything he represents – youth and freedom. – culminating in her direct accusation:

ROSEMARY. ….You’re just a piece of Arkansas white trash!  And braggin about your father!  And I’ll bet he wasn’t any better’n you are!  I’ll bet you lose that job before your two weeks is up….You think just ‘cause you’re young you can push the old folks aside.  You’ll end your life in the gutter and it’ll serve you right ‘cause the gutter’s where you belong.

 Howard puts a stop to the tirade.

Hal and Madge finally make an electrically charged connection at the end of the second act and cannot take their hands off each other, kissing passionately all over the yard, on the porch, in front of the shed.  However, they now have to face the headwinds of Flo’s disapproval, not to mention Alan who becomes insanely jealous and feels utterly betrayed by both. 

Act III takes place the morning after the picnic.  Everything has changed.  Madge and Hal returned late in Alan’s car.  Alan has the police now looking for Hal on the trumped up charge that his car was stolen.  Flo is outraged. 

Rosemary has seen her future and does not like the vision of old lady spinster she knows she will become; she has begged Howard to marry her and before Howard knows what has happened he has been railroaded into a future he never thought would become real, although, deep down, he does love Rosemary.  

Hal plans to flee on the freight train that can be heard in the distance, urging Madge to come with him, telling her where to look for him in Tulsa.  He sees in Madge “the only real thing I ever had,” and he imagines a life with her, settling down, perhaps buying a farm, a future.  Their relationship is different than the others, based on strong sexual desire and the unbounded optimism of youth. Hal is no longer the drifter.

In spite of Flo’s disappointment and objections, Madge follows on the next bus.  Flo’s neighbor, Helen Potts, has to restrain Flo who still can’t believe that her beautiful daughter could be throwing away her life, but Madge has opted for HER life, as Rosemary did.

That freight train whistle is a constant leitmotiv in the play, a reminder of a vast nation with sprawling opportunities, at the heart of the American Dream.  Hal arrives and departs via that beckoning train. From Inge’s description of the setting before the beginning of the play:  Far off, the whistle of a train is heard coming to town. It is a happy promising sound.

And near the beginning of the play, these exchanges between the Owens women foreshadow much of the play:
MADGE: Whenever I hear that train coming into town, I always get a feeling of excitement….in here. (Hugging her stomach)
MILLIE: Whenever I hear it, I tell myself someday I’m going to get on that train and I’m going to go to New York.
FLO: That Train only goes as far as Tulsa.
MILLIE: Well, in Tulsa I could catch another train.
MADGE: I always wonder, maybe some wonderful person is getting off here, just by accident, and he’ll come into the dime store for something and see me behind the counter…

Interesting that Dramaworks’ season opens with this classic play, as it did last year with Our Town, a play with which it shares many characteristics, simple but direct fundamental themes unfolding in a small-town setting, superbly staged and acted.  Clearly this where Dramaworks excels, in the details of the staging.

It is a complicated production, even requiring a choreographer, Michelle Petrucci, for the sexy and disturbing dance number on the crowded stage in Act II.

Set Under Construction
 There can never be enough praise for scenic design by Michael Amico, and the set for Picnic is spot on, exactly as Inge required, and even for PBD’s relatively new home and larger stage, must have been a challenge for Mr. Amico.  Challenge accepted and achieved!

Finished Picnic Set

Costume design is by Brian O'Keefe who did not want to use stock dresses, hand crafting more than a dozen for the show, with Madge’s blue dress requiring 60 hours of work!

More about the devil is in the detail: the lighting design by Donald Edmund Thomas, something the audience might take for granted, was carefully planned to be in sync with the costumes and as the play takes place within 24 hours, the morning sunrise light begins on stage left, moves overhead during the day, and “sets” stage right. There are a number of “wake up” changes of light and there are some eighty lighting cues in the production.

The music (all original scores) and sound design are by Steve Brush, perfectly setting the tone and mood of the production.  I loved the opening which indeed captured the morning of a late summer day, the sun coming up; the whistle of a train in the distance, a barking dog, and then the play unfolds. At night the sound of crickets fill the theatre.

Although in minor roles, special mention should be made of Julie Rowe and Natalia Coego who play Rosemary’s unmarried schoolteacher  friends, a kind of Greek chorus, one younger than Rosemary who teaches, what else, feminine hygiene (sounds very 50s to me) and the other, an older woman who reminds Rosemary what she might easily become. And kudos to young Riley Anthony who plays Bomber, the newspaper boy who unmercifully teases Millie, and naturally is gaga over Madge (although even his opinion of Madge changes at the end).

This is a huge undertaking for a regional theatre, flawlessly directed by Bill Hayes who obviously has a great rapport with his actors and behind-the scenes technicians – a promising start to Dramaworks’ new season.  
Leading Cast Members