Sunday, May 18, 2003

Picnic (Actors' Summit)

‘PICNIC’ fine at Actors' Summit

In the mid-nineteen fifties and for the next decade, three playwrights dominated the U.S. dramatic scene: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge. Known as the Modernists, since their writing examined real people and real issues of the post World War II modern era, they each left their mark on American theatre.

Miller constantly asked, “Is this the best way to live” while centering his plays along the eastern seaboard. Think of ‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN,’ ‘ALL MY SONS,’ ‘THE CRUCIBLE,’ and ‘THE PRICE.’

Williams, the southerner, continued to observe women who found themselves in societies which didn’t understand them, and which they didn’t understand. Think of Blanche DuBois in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE” and ‘Amanda Winfield’ in ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE.’

Then there was William Inge, the troubled midwesterner who explored the darker recesses inside each person. His plays often reflected his depressed state which finally lead to his committing suicide. His autobiographical “DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS” and his classic “COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA’ are but two of his probing inquiries. Many critics, including this one, consider his1955 play ‘PICNIC’ to be his signature work. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Circle Award, and the Theatre Club Award.

The action of the play is set in a small Kansas town outside the home of Flo Owens, a middle-aged widow who lives with her two daughters and a spinster boarder. When drifter Hal Carter arrives in time for the town’s Labor Day celebration the women’s lives are disrupted and transformed.

On the surface ‘PICNIC’ appears to be a simple play to produce. Everything needed to develop clear characters is present in the script, and the setting is a backyard with a single house as the backdrop. ‘PICNIC’ is anything but simple to stage. Based on Inge’s midwestern quiet voice a production requires a director and cast who are aware of the power of underplay. This is not a play of great emoting. It is a play that requires clear character etching, as Inge is a person writer, not a plot developer. Too many productions are ruined by not understanding the need for midwestern restraint.

It was with daunting task that Neil Thackaberry and his Actors’ Studio cast staged ‘PICNIC.’ They did a very, very creditable job. In spite of some minor glitches, such as some line flubbs and the inexplicable use of southern accents by some of the cast, this is one of the theatre’s best productions. The director and cast were in harmony on their interpretation, understanding of Inge, and grasp of the right nuances make the play work.

Though not completely the right physical types for the lead roles, Constance Thackaberry and Keith Stevens well developed their characters. Hal’s total charade of life would have been better developed if Stevens, in earlier scenes, had displayed a little more braggardness in his speech and swagger, but, as is, this was a creditable performance. Thackaberry needs to show a little more depth of vulnerability for being a physical trophy rather than appreciated as a person; but, again, this was a respectable performance.

Ellen Rankin was properly pathetic as Helen Potts, the next door neighbor. Eryn Murman’s tomboyish Millie was on target. MaryJo Alexander gave one of her best career performances as Flow, Millie and Madge’s mother. Scott Espositio was physically and performance close to perfect as Alan.

One of the most difficult scenes in American modern theatre is the “Rosemary and Howard scene” in which Rosemary, a matron school teacher begs in beau, Howard, a milktoast-type store owner, to marry her. Too many times the scene is overacted and played for laughs. The test of any production is whether the audience sits in stunned silence during the scene. The opening night Actors’ Summit audience stopped breathing and was held in rapt silence by the stunning performances by Lucy Bredeson Smith and Bob Keefe. This was one of the very best presentations of this scene I have ever experienced. Bredeson-Smith is perfection in all of her scenes.

Capsule judgement: Once the cast gets settled into their roles, and the line stumbles and exact characterizations are developed, ‘PICNIC’ at Actors’ Summit should be one of the theatre’s very best presentations to date.