Note: Entire contents copyright 2004 by A. S. Waterman
Note: Entire contents copyright 2004 by A. S. Waterman
Reviewed by A.S. Waterman
Written by William Inge
Designed and Directed by Ed Shea
In the second of its "backyard summer classics," Rhode Island's 2nd Story Theatre explores the harsh world of repressed sexuality and its stranglehold on the America of the early 1950s. The play is PICNIC, William Inge's Pulitzer Prize winner, set in the rural town of Neewollah (read it backwards) in Kansas. "I've often wondered how people raised in our great cities ever develop any knowledge of humankind," Inge is frequently quoted as saying. "People who grow up in small towns get to know each other so much more closely than they do in cities." The residents of Neewollah seem especially close-knit. Yet ironically, it is the appearance of a sexy stranger that suddenly creates chaos for them. As a result, they learn far more about themselves and about each other than they ever intended.
As two Neewollah households prepare for a Labor Day picnic, Flo Owens preps and preens her daughter Madge, "the pretty one" (vs. Millie, "the smart one"). The goal is to elicit a marriage proposal from approved suitor Alan, a respectable college student to whom Madge clearly has no physical attraction. Then Hal Carter, an attractive young man clad only in low-slung jeans and scuffed boots, bursts from the door of elderly neighbor Helen Potts, where he was supposedly hired to do some chores. Hal immediately assumes and relishes the role of lust-object for the (almost entirely female) neighborhood. It turns out that he is an old college pal of Alan's and has come to ask him for some money and perhaps a job, although Hal quickly decides he would rather have Alan's girlfriend Madge instead. So much for male friendship.
As the sexual attraction builds between Hal and Madge, much is made of the "will-she or won't-she," along with everyone else's efforts to thwart the impending consummation. Especially hell-bent is Flo, who, despite her penchant for excessive maternal control for its own sake, desperately wants to keep Madge from winding up in her own hopeless situation, having thrown away her life for the girls' father. In an era when "to do it or not" had lifelong consequences, and one "mistake" could taint a woman permanently, the wrong choice had already charted Flo's course and that of elderly Helen, who had remained "Mrs. Potts" for life although her parents had annulled her marriage immediately after her youthful elopement. Meanwhile, the two young men delight in Hal's stories of casual sex and misadventures, laughing about them with callous cruelty. To modern eyes, this seems barbaric; yet Madge's decision clearly has weight, if she can manage to let her brain rather than her body make it.
Some very good performances add complexity to this conflict. Especially noteworthy are Carol Schlink as Flo Owens, who maintains her character teetering on the brink between domination and desperation, and 16-year-old Gabby Sherba as "smart" younger sister Millie in pigtails, trying out everything new in order to figure out her place in all this. A vibrant and energetic young actress, Sherba also displays her singing talents in the Cabaret after the show. Pam Faulkner does a fine job as Helen Potts, the aging everywoman of Neewollah, defiant and beaming at the prospect of one last sexual hurrah, even if only in her mind's eye as she fawns effusively over the half-dressed Hal.
PICNIC follows the success of MORNING'S AT SEVEN, the first of 2nd Story's "backyard" series, which consistently played to sell-out crowds. MORNING'S AT SEVEN also launched 2nd Story's after-theatre Cabaret, which also enjoyed capacity crowds. PICNIC may have a struggle in duplicating this success, as might the new Cabaret show. Although actors Lara Hakeem and Tim White both gave a commendable performance on press night, their Madge and Hal generated little chemistry together, and their scenes of simulated abandon failed to raise many eyebrows. Although some of this may be due to the modern view of sex in America, one audience member commented that the intrigue was "a little too Lifetime network." Separating the production's serious approach to these characters' sexual tension from its comical approaches to the others' might have given it more sizzle. Eliminating the distracting odor of burnt cheese from the downstairs kitchen might have helped also. The downstairs Cabaret would benefit from microphones for the vocalists, as well as improved cocktail service (troubled by a limited selection and mis-heard orders) and a better system for dealing with the large influx of people after the play.
Still, the premise of this summer series -- three unrelated plays using the same set and chronicling three very different views of America's suburban backyard -- remains intriguing, and the plays are well chosen and well rendered. Overall, this PICNIC is a worthwhile adventure and an interesting opportunity to see how a previous culture gave rise to modern attitudes. Like ants, a few problems may creep in, but Labor Day comes only once each year in Neewollah and across America. This Pulitzer Prize-winning picnic is worth the trip.
PICNIC runs through August 14. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Cabaret shows are Friday and Saturday nights only. Reservations are strongly recommended for the Bistro, show and Cabaret.