The days are getting longer; the temperatures are warmer (but not quite yet hot). It's the time of year that's perfect for a picnic. Or, in this case, a Picnic—William Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now appearing as an intermittently satisfying production at Live Theater Workshop.
The picnic of the title isn't a beginning-of-summer affair, though. Its events take place over the course of a single Labor Day in a small Kansas town. Its inhabitants are enjoying a last fling outdoors before the cold weather and hard realities of life sneak up on them.
A gaggle of girls, single women and widows fill the stage, and the sparks fly once the ladies lay their eyes on young Hal Carter, played by promising young actor Nick Trice.
A smooth talker with an athletic frame, Hal is a drifter who turns up in town. He's given a meal and some odd jobs by divorcée Helen Potts (Peg Peterson), who later confesses that simply having a man in the house made her remember what it feels like to be a woman. The same could be said for her neighbors, self-proclaimed spinster Rosemary Sydney (Lesley Abrams), teenage beauty Madge Owens (Micaela Durham) and her bookish younger sister, Millie (Lucille Petty).
The only two people not taken in by Hal's charms are Madge's mother, Flo (Toni Press-Coffman), and Madge's well-to-do fiancé, Alan (Thomas Jernigan). Haunted by the consequences of her own impulsive marriage, Flo is immediately suspicious of Hal. And Alan, who is all too familiar with Hal and his way with the ladies, is justifiably alarmed by the charged looks that Hal and Madge keep exchanging.
The play manages to be surprisingly frank in its discussion of sexuality while still maintaining its protective, 1950s veneer of propriety. (The play debuted on Broadway in 1953.) Inge, a closeted gay man in a less-tolerant era, made a career out of characters that chafe against social constraints.
His awareness of the complexity of those constraints rescues his work from melodrama. Flo demands that her daughter keep her distance from the untrustworthy drifter, advice that's small-minded—yet wise. Madge liberates herself from her mother's control, but opens herself up to the possibility of tragedy.
Inge's work has not held up as well as that of cotemporaries Tennessee Williams and Henry Miller, perhaps because of his focus on societal strictures. Much has changed in the nearly 60 years since he wrote Picnic. Watching it today, you're less likely to feel your own beliefs challenged than you are to think, "Did they really behave like that in the '50s?"
Director Glen Coffman added an edge to the piece by casting an African American in the role of Hal. Trice's race brings a new layer of meaning to much of the action, such as Flo's instant distrust of him and her surprise that he's been to college. While class is less of a hot-button topic in our time, racial conflict still feels dangerous.
Unfortunately, Coffman doesn't seem to have brought the same critical evaluation to the rest of the production.
The set, created by Richard and Amanda Gremel, carefully follows Inge's script directions. There, onstage, is the yard shared by Helen and Flo. There's Flo's porch, and Helen's backdoor, and even a tree stump. Each detail has been attended to and lovingly created—but it feels artificial. Instead of conveying the wide-open spaces of Kansas, it seems enclosed and cramped. And the set becomes a metaphor for the general condition of the show: By faithfully adhering to the original rather than starting with a unique vision, the production feels like a re-creation rather than a living work of art.
The same carries over into the performance. When Alan jumps onto Hal's back and is carried around piggyback, it doesn't feel like a spontaneous greeting between two old friends; it feels like a stage direction. And in spite of some fine acting, the pieces don't always come together into a whole. Inge occasionally layers conversations on top of each other, and at times, it's difficult to tell who is responding to whom.
The ensemble is talented—several young actors are either still in high school or recently graduated—and in the end, the individual performers make the production worth seeing. Trice and Durham deserve high praise for their work as Hal and Madge. Those roles are challenging, and the two not only give fully committed performances, but are able to carry the show—no small achievement in such capable company. Petty displays great energy and charm as Millie, and Jernigan gives his all as the jilted fiancé.
As the matriarch, Press-Coffman is the ache at the heart of the play. All the characters bear a hidden pain of some kind, but Flo wears hers closer to the skin. As she watches her daughter repeating the mistakes of her own youth, she dissolves into helpless misery. I found myself wishing that Flo would be more active in her attempts to control Madge, in order to give Madge more to work against, but I can't be sure whether that was a choice made by Press-Coffman, the director or Inge himself.
Abrams and Brian Wees share a spotlight in the comic subplot of the spinster schoolteacher who is trying to snare a husband. It's a silly thread—obviously inserted to balance the drama with some levity—but it's absolutely delightful. Abrams and Wees come off like a pair of Golden Age comedians, with every gesture and facial expression delivering whole comic monologues.
Rounding out the cast are Kristi Loera and Michele Loera as a hysterical pair of gossipy schoolmarms, and Paul Matlock as a newspaper-delivering bully.
It's unlikely that this will be a Picnic to remember, but with a cast like this, you can be sure it will at least be a fun time out.