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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The only one not irresistibly drawn to the handsome young stranger Millie's pragmatic widowed mother Flo (Mare Winningham). Her hopes are too firmly fixed on having her exceptionally pretty daughter Madge marry the town's big catch, rich college boy Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport). To her Hal, who's actually a former college mate of Alan's arrival is too much a reminder of her own disastrous marriage.
in Sam Gold's finely detailed production Sure the play is dated. Like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio stories, Inge's portraits of lives of quiet desperation in the Kansas milieu he grew up in today comes off as more quaint than with the sort of enduring social relevance of Arthur Miller's characters. And yet, with the right actors and a director sensitive to the small every day subtleties of Inge's world, the dramas exploding in the backyard of those unpretentious homes over just two days can still convey the universality of the loneliness and regrets about choices made and avoided.
Burstyn Winningham, Marvel and Birney are those exactly right actors. Burstyn and Winningham bring enormous heart and strength to the older women soldiering through difficult, mostly joyless lives. Marvel and Birney practically steal the show, she as the brash old maid high school teacher Rosemary Sydney and he as her boring boyfriend Howard Bevans. Madeleine Martin, who's previously made strong impressions in a more recent Pulitzer Prize winning play, August: Osage County, and a British import, Harper Regan, is wonderfully engaging as the sassy bookworm Millie.
Gold has alsodrawn believable if not award winning performances from the Broadway newcomers who are the heated center of this two day weekend. He's also given Chris Perfetti, Maddie Corman and Cassie Beck a chance to shine in cameo roles — Perfetti as the Madge-smitten newspaper delivery boy, Corman and Beck as Rosemary's schoolteacher Plain Jane school teacher pals. He's also wisely opted to eliminate one intermission thus bringing this trip back to pre-feminist, small town Kansas in at a brisk two hours
It's the extent of the Picnic women's sexual repression that makes them light-headed at the sight of a bare chested, sexy male like Hal. They typify the tendency of Inge's women to associate happiness and success with romance and marriage. It's that limited ambition that led led Flo to waste her own spell as the town beauty on a drinker and bad provider and now drives her to push Madge to snag a rich husband before her beauty loses its power to take her out of her impoverished world. It's only the occasional odd girl out like Millie who sees marriage as a trap but, true to Inge's vision, Hal's arrival reveals that underneath it all, the bookish teenager would like a taste of the romantic attention lavished on pretty girls like her sister. The play's most memorable scene, a backyard dance party initiated by Hal also throws Rosemary and Howard's relationship off balance with a night of sex suddenly making marriage to Hal a desperate imperative for a last chance at happiness.
That backyard yard scene smoothly choreographed Chase Brock but what makes it so memorable is the non verbal acting that lays bare everyone's inner tumult. Reed Birney is especially riveting as he stands on the Owens porch watching the fun dancing take on high drama as the lawn is taken over by the meant for each other Hal and Madge, Actually there's another not easily forgotten scene. That's the pre-daylight scene after the intermission, when Rosemary tries to persuade the reluctant Howard to marry her. It's both comic and incredibly. Rosemary's comeback to Howard's ineffectual "Well. . . ." with "A well's a hole in the ground, Howard" gets a big laugh. The laughter continues as Howard turns feisty declaring he's not going to marry a woman who says "you gotta marry me,Howard" without at least saying "please." But watching Marvel's Rosemary become beaten and humble and plead "Please marry me, Howard" turns amusement into pity.
If you wish Picnic could have ended on a less "anything's possible in a love at first sight story" note, the playwright himself had second thoughts about it. He actually wrote another version called Summer Brave with a more realistic ending. Unlike Picnic, that version won no prizes and lasted for only 18 performances when the ANTA Playhouse mounted it in 1975, The stagecraft, typical of everything at the elegant American Airlines theater is impeccable. Andrew Lieberman's set conveys the simple, lower middle class neighborhood where anything exciting lies far beyond the tops of the two houses. and gives the audiences glimpses of the interiors visible through the windows of the Owens house. Jane Cox's lighting takes us through The change from morning to sunset and pre-dawn and David Zinn's costumes true to the mid-century period.
In a season that seems dedicated to Pulitzer Prize winners, Picnic may not be the one with the biggest box office stars or a by a playwright whose name still rings an instant bell with theater goers. However, given the top drawer ensemble and staging, you could do a lot worse than spending two hours with William Inge's small town Kansans.
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