It is a wonder that William Inge’s Picnic still works at all, for it’s a 1950s play all about sexual repression. Absolutely everyone in the “small Kansas town” is afraid of sex. Along comes the young, hot, masculine wayward man called Hal Carter, played by Sebastian Stan of the movies––shirtless and sweaty as he picks up a few bucks by doing chores out in the heat of an August day on his way to find his old college buddy Alan. As luck would have it, Hal has happened upon the neighbor of Madge Owens, who just happens to be Alan’s girlfriend. And so, once Alan comes a calling and reunites with his college friend, Hal is welcomed along for the Labor Day weekend festivities and scores the promise of a possible job with Alan’s father’s mill and a sexually intense love affair no one was expecting when they got up that morning.
Picnic used to be a standard of the community and regional professional theaters, but has gone out of fashion, probably for the main reason that its central issue is handled in a way that now seems to border on the ridiculous. On the other hand, Americans are intrinsically puritan––it is part of our DNA, so the coy sexual energy on display might seem silly by today’s standards, but we understand from where it all comes and the passions are still real and true to human nature in any era.
Do you remember the film version? Watch it again and it is much easier to believe in the sexual repression at the center of the story, for it can be viewed as a product of its own period. However, on stage right now, one might shrug and think, “What’s everyone’s problem?” Those familiar with the film’s cast, which consisted of Rosalind Russell, Kim Novac, Rita Shaw, Arthur O’Connel and a slightly too old William Holden, will not be challenged by the casting they find in this handsome Roundabout Theatre Company production directed by Sam Gold. Everyone is the perfect type, but there is a disconnect between the young people and the older generation. William Inge’s 1950s jargon is tough on young contemporary movie actors and the young ones have trouble giving natural line readings, but the veterans know just how to play William Inge and do so beautifully.
In the veteran category we start with the wonderful presence of Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Helen Potts the neighbor who employs Hal. Elizabeth Marvel is Rosemary, the old maid school teacher and boarder in the Owens house, who entraps her sometimes boyfriend into marriage. He is the winning Reed Birney as Howard. Mare Winningham plays Flo Owens with a perfect blend of paranoia and motherly protectiveness. Somehow, Ms. Winningham makes Flo’s illogical alarm to the visiting stranger work. It is this character that allows us to understand her daughter’s position as beautiful bird trapped in a cage and why she needs to escape so desperately. The daughter is Madge, who is pretty as a picture in the form of Maggie Grace. Her boyfriend Alan is handled by the amiable Ben Rappaport. The only young character not making her Broadway debut here is Madeleine Martin as the young teen Millie––a wonderful character that brings a down to earth realism to the world of the play.
Andrew Lieberman’s set puts the back porch and side of the Owens house on an angle to create depth and includes a bit of the neighboring Potts house back porch as well. This choice gives the actors a few more places to wander, but it makes a line about how far away the two houses are seem ridiculous. It’s a surprise the line wasn’t dropped to accommodate the set. There are wonderful details in the interior of the house, which you can see through the generous windows. Characters are continually poking their heads out of the windows and scenes are partially played inside where we can’t quite see everything going on, but we get the gist. This all makes for a nice sense that we are eves-dropping on the scene.
David Zinn’s costumes stick to the small town feel typical of the period and emphasize that era’s style of dressing up beyond what would actually be comfortable for the weather. Jane Cox’s lighting design effectively depicts the changing light of day from morning to night, with little theatrical flourishes along the way.
Those interested in seeing well known titles form Broadway’s Golden Era won’t want to miss this production, though it is sometimes hard to buy the sexual politics and hear that out of date dialogue coming from of the younger members of the cast. The merits are that Ellen Burstyn is in it; the exploding passions of the characters are as good, if not better, than your favorite soap opera; Sebastian Stan without a shirt for the first third of the play is breath-taking enough to make you understand why all the neighborhood ladies are fanning themselves––it isn’t just because it’s summer.
I once saw this play at a high school theatre festival with an all teen cast. Under those conditions, the play was suddenly very potent, for the treatment of the topic felt shocking in the way William Inge meant it to be back in the mid 1950s. And some how, those teens found a way into the material that made it believable, so it is possible. I only wish all the members of the current Broadway cast were able to ring as true.