Adrien Behn (l) admires Mike Meier (r) in front of family and friends in Picnic; photo: Dan Region
Sometimes a picnic just isn’t what it seems - not all fried chicken and hard-boiled eggs and iced tea, certainly. Not just fireworks on the river, three-legged races and volleyball. Not a romantic tryst, either, while family and friends politely look the other way. Sometimes a Picnic is a life-changing, love-enhancing, emotionally gritty and over-the-top drama that alters every perspective we have on life. At least that is what playwright William Inge would have us believe in his aptly titled play, "Picnic," now on stage at the Ghent Playhouse.
Picnic was never an easy work to buy. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for the 1952-53 season, it slyly combined human comedy and melodrama to present a picture of mid-western sensibilities to an audience overly familiar with the stereotypes that peopled its limited stage set: the old-maid schoolteacher, the aging bachelor, the antsy teen-age beauty, the hunky drifter, the "papa’s boy" student and the tomboy. It was a more realistic photograph of people’s lives than the other hits of its season, "Sabrina Fair" with its fairy-tale morality, "The Solid Gold Cadillac" with its fairy-tale humorous take on the Wall Street economics, and "Tea and Sympathy" with its fairy-tale spin on human-kindness. In "Picnic" there was grit and love and despair and desperation and you could identify with the characters.
If that sounds straightforward, then take a giant step backward and look again. This gritty, novella on stage, which takes place over a 24 hour period in its three acts (four scenes) has its laughs and its tears and its slight stake in unreality. In this new local production it also has some very good actors who can overcome the modest short-comings in its time-encrusted script.
Howard Bevans, the crusty old bachelor who resists the wiles of the women he’s known, is played by Tracy Trimm. Trimm has a twinkle in his eye and a spark to his step. He seems almost too old to be worn down by the pleasures of the flesh or the pressures of the heart and yet, in the third act when his lady-friend presses home the point of emotional and sexual dependency he breaks and allows himself, with visible angst, to take the next step. It is a key performance in the success of this production.
His partner in this secondary story in the play, is Rosemary Sydney, an old-maid schoolteacher (not really old, but rather middle-aged and stuck in the rut of the psychologically stymied) played beautifully by Meg Dooley. Self-assured in the first act she gradually, if quickly, warps into one of the desperate ones and by her opening scene in Act Three she is clearly at the breaking point. Dooley comes close to breaking hearts as she asks Howard to marry her, demands the attention she has long denied herself. Together she and Trimm forge the iron-girdled heart of the play.
In counterpoint to their simple and straightforward story is the romantic triangle, or quadrangle of the Owens sisters, Madge and Millie, Madge’s boyfriend Alan and his school-chum, a dropout named Hal. Madge is the pretty one, Millie the brainy kid. Alan is robust and from a good family. Hal is without shame or self-pity and on the hobo-trail. Both girls are attracted to both boys but no one is paying any real attention to what is right for each of them and their friends. Madge is almost engaged to Alan when she meets Hal. Alan is very proprietary about her. Naturally she falls - hook, line and sinker - for hunky Hal who is supposed to be her sister’s date for the picnic.
Michael Hitchcock plays Alan for every overtly masculine impulse written into this character. He carries it off, even in a frilly apron which, luckily, didn’t get the hearty laugh that director Dignum may have been anticipating. That’s good for the character. We like Alan, after all. He’s honorable and nice and has a definite strength in his ease with people. Hitchcock makes him as real as can be and keeps him that way, even in the fight scene which felt all too real.
Sarah Naramore is excellent as tomboyish sixteen year old Millie. Her transition from boyishness to girlishness is delicious to watch. She brings a clarity to the relationship she shares with Alan and that is a delicious element in this otherwise sordid sister-rivalry that exists in the script. Her older sister, the town beauty, Madge, is played by Adrien Behn. Not as convincing in her role as Naramore is in hers, she nonetheless gathers steam by the end of the play becoming a hearty, love-encrusted young woman, willing to sacrifice even her mother’s support where the affairs of the heart are concerned. Again, under the director’s watchful eye, a human transition occurs before our gaze.
Hal, the object her unbidden affection, is effectively played by Mike Meier. This is a trap role for a man. We anticipate the hearty, well-developed chest and arms of William Holden, his shirt torn off, his muscles rippling. This is the image that has been thrust at us since the movie poster first revealed that animal quality in Hal. Meier gives us something else. He gives us a smile that delights. he gives us a sense of humor that ingratiates. He gives us a purity that shouldn’t exist in a drifter, a drop out, a man without a purpose. He displays the inner muscles in the man rather than merely the outer shell of attraction. It is easy, from the opening scene, to understand his attractions and why the women in this Kansas town are focused on him from the instant he appears in their midst.
As the girls’ mother, Kathy Wohlfeld has a hard job holding center stage, yet she manages, with Inge’s help and Dignum’s too, to turn the entire play into a story about her. She is the center of this tiny community and when, at the end of the play, people have settled their own sensual business, we are left with her, a woman defeated by her own back story, trying to understand her present and not contemplate her future. It is a lovely performance.
Lael Locke plays the lusty neighbor-lady with grace and charm, throwing sidelong glances and sighing over her responsibilities. She gives Helen the humanity the character deserves without ever indulging in a single self-pitying gesture. The balance of the company do fine in their limited roles, mostly serving as window-dressing to the two, twisted love stories.
The Pulitzer is generally given to a work that illuminates aspects of the American way of life and that is exactly what this play gives us. Amazingly the early 1950s story is not very different from today’s America and its inter-generational troubles. Director Ed Dignum takes advantage of that simple truth and never makes us feel that we’re watching an old, animated photograph yellowing with age. His people, stripped of their period costumes designed perfectly by Joanne Maurer, are very much people we recognize. Inge’s language has the stilted resonance of time past, but its natural delivery by these actors only creates a remove of place and not of time. Dignum has encouraged a naturalness that says "mid-west" not "sixty years ago." That’s one of the best achievements this director has managed. As for his dancing moments, well, that’s something the actors should be dealing with, not the director.
Joe Iuviene has created a terrific, if cramped, back yard set for the Ghent stage and the lighting and sound designs by Bradley Fay are not the best I’ve encountered in this local arena. Fay has a long way to go to meet the success of his predecessors here.
The Ghent Playhouse has, for the most part, brought a treat to the neighborhood. A Labor Day Picnic in mid-winter presents a well-defined picture of the way things always are if we’re open to the sudden alterations that make the differences in our lives.
Picnic plays at the Ghent Playhouse on weekends only through February 10. Tickets are $12 - $15.