Picnic

nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
January 18, 2013

Roundabout’s revival of Picnic is full bodied, full textured, earthy, and passionate. The acting is strong, the world evoked believable, the respect for playwright William Inge palpable. And it is all gloriously unmiked.

Picnic is set in a fusty, feminine world of Kansas mothers and daughters, old maid schoolteachers, and narrow opportunities: “everything so prim, occasionally a hairpin on the floor.” But then handsome drifter Hal Carter appears, completely upsetting the quiet lives, dreams, and plans of two neighbor ladies and their households: old maiden widow lady Helen Potts, anxious single mother Flo Owens, her pretty daughter Madge, her smart daughter Millie, and the waspish spinster boarder Rosemary Sydney.

These characters are brought to life through by and large canny casting and skillful, intelligent performances. Sebastian Stan as Hal Carter is the embodiment of a brawny braggart; the vulnerability he reveals in Act Three makes him as naked emotionally as he was physically in the first two acts. Maggie Grace’s Madge is sweet and fresh and good, and her growth from girl to woman is believable and not a little wrenching. Wrenching too is Elizabeth Marvel’s turn as the frustrated Rosemary Sydney. There is a moment in Act Two when she stands a bit apart from her fellow schoolteachers as they prattle on unendingly about food and clothes, and you just feel her eyes rolling and her heart sinking at the prospect of another year of this unfulfilling grind. Mare Winningham as Flo, so wonderful last year as the matriarch of Tribes, is centered, grounded, and smart.

Strong performances are also provided by the remainder of the cast. Madeleine Martin brought out much of the gawky awkwardness of smart sister Millie, although her flat delivery sometimes seemed informed by Danielle Ferland’s Little Red Riding Hood in the original Into the Woods. Ben Rappaport keeps rich kid Alan Seymour a nice guy. Reed Birney has some fine comic moments as Rosemary’s long-time beau, businessman Howard Bevans. Chris Perfetti is sufficiently goony as paperboy Bomber Gutzel. Maddie Corman and Cassie Beck, as Rosemary’s prim colleagues Irma Kronkite and Christine Schoenwalder, are a hoot. And Ellyn Burstyn is smack at the center of the piece, cheerfully available to Millie, Madge, Hal, and Alan—and Flo—even as she is perennially at the beck and call of her aged, unseen mother.

Interestingly, Burstyn at eighty is nowhere near as old as the part is written: while her spunk and spark make for a very appealing Mrs. Potts, it’s not the same faded, retired Mrs. Potts who can philosophically sum up Hal’s impact at play’s end: “There was a man in the house, and it seemed good.” That “seemed” should speak volumes; does it when spoken by a woman who twinkles as she appreciatively eyes the shirtless Hal?

Director Sam Gold firmly grounds the production in reality. The stage is dominated by Flo and Helen’s humble homes, back porches, and rather scraggly backyards. There is a cramped feeling to the set, which is suitable: the young people’s dreams are too big to be able to grow here. So there are some very smart choices being made. But unfortunately, I wonder how many of these choices resonated with the audience. At the performance I attended, the audience laughed heartily and knowingly at the Act Two close as Hal swept Madge up in his arms, declaring that “We’re not goin’ on no God-damn picnic.” This line must have been thrilling and romantic and shocking in 1953; now, we have come too far and seen too much.

Full disclosure: I love Picnic. There is something about this sad, sweet, sentimental slice of 1950s small-town life that deeply touches me. I went to the theatre expecting to be moved—and I was not disappointed. Roundhouse has worked hard to be faithful to and respectful of its source material.

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