No one is quite comfortable in their skin in the Transport Group's production of William Inge's "Picnic." And that is just how it should be.
William Inge may not have had the poetic lyricism of Tennessee Williams, or the ability to juxtapose politics and drama, like Arthur Miller, but he had the ability, like Carson McCullers, to see through to what was inside his characters, and "Picnic" is his best example thereof. As with 'Sheba' it is as much about what the actors convey in dialogue, as what they don't.
Take Flo Owens, wonderfully played by Michele Pawk. She lovingly hovers over her girls, Madge and Millie, wanting the best for them, even if, one of them, Madge, isn't sure what she wants. Something clues us in to Flo wanting for Madge what she did not get for herself, as she sees Madge capable of making the same mistakes she did. Madge questions the value of her beauty, which is all she seems to be admired for. Those of us not having the looks to get us through in life--hear! hear!--may be struck by Inge's assertion that pretty people have problems, too.
Not that it makes much difference to Madge's defiant, adolescent sister, Millie, played by Hannah Elless, who walks off with the show, whenever she is on stage. I always gravitated to Millie, as I was so much like her, down to reading "The Ballad Of The Sad Café," and wanting to escape to New York--which I did, and which I know she will. And Heather MacRae, so compelling as Lola in 'Sheba,' is lovable as neighbor Helen Potts, whose chance for a man has sailed, but is content with the pleasures she is given, simple though they be. If Helen Potts seems the most lovable character, it is also because she is most comfortable in her skin. Except when her ailing mother calls--a real "Eunice and Mama" scenario, if there ever was one!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
It is when Hal Carter, brilliantly explored by David T. Patterson, arrives, that the play heats up, and things begin to darken. Hal's physical charms are apparent, but Patterson digs deep and comes up with a tormented soul, with a traumatic past, that leaves him incapable of grabbing onto life's brass rings, even when they seem within reach. What's more, Jack Cummings III explores, in Hal and Alan's (Rowan Vickers) relationship, homosexuality, or, at least the possibility of it, simmering beneath the surface. Hey, why not; this is William Inge!!!!!!!!!! It should be explored.
I have never seen so much touching between Hal and Alan than here. It is a daring, but necessary move.
Emily Skinner's Rosemary may at first seem the quintessential Midwestern spinster. But, once she takes to drink, calling out Hal, and admitting to a less than virginal past, the role goes from caricature to character, with Skinner in command all the way. Her begging Howard to marry her is still heartbreakingly touching, and John Cariani is the first Howard I have seen to play him with some sexuality, downplay the nerdieness, and even reveal a cruel streak, all belying his insecurity at change, let alone living with Rosemary.
"Picnic" was originally titled "Front Porch." It is generally staged between the two front porches of the Owens' and Potts' households. Here, it is staged against slabs of wooden boards and Fifties lawn chairs that I recall from my own childhood. The lighting mutes the slabs, mirroring each moment's emotional mood. It is an unconventional staging device, that works.
I have always had a special relationship with "Picnic," and not just to Millie. Growing up in Jersey, when I did, on each Saturday before Labor Day, the 1955 movie version of "Picnic" was shown as the late movie, on ABC. Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, William Holden--wow!!!!!!!!!!!! For many, this is how we came to "Picnic; " for some, it may be the only one known.
But while it is still running, I encourage a visit to the Transport Group's stage presentation, which explores this already known story deeper than the movie, limited by censorship of the time, could hardly suggest.
I just love this photo!!!!!!!! Yes, the play is full of humorous, fun moments, which the actors make the most of. But, thankfully, they, and the production, make the most of Inge's explorations of understanding the human condition, still essential to our time.
And, yes, I miss the McGuire Sisters, but this "Picnic" can stand on its own, without them!!!!!!!!!!!!