Dallas — A drifter arrives in a small Kansas town on a sultry Labor Day, sheds his shirt to rake leaves, and sends three generations of neighboring females into stud-struck body gazing in Picnic, William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed by Bruce R. Coleman at Theatre Three.
Three acts and two-and-a-half hours later, what started as curious titillation and some giggles over a swaggering stranger has boiled over, libido-wise, and these women, shaken by desire from their strict conventions, are reassembling their post-picnic lives. But before that happens, Inge gives us a close-up of Midwestern women in mid-century America, restricted by geography and gender, sexually repressed, and straining at the straightjacket of small-town conventions.
Like Inge’s other hits from the era, such as Come Back Little Sheba, Bus Stop and Splendor in the Grass, Picnic’s strength lies less in a dynamic plot and more in his naturalistic, honest depiction of the people he grew up around in his mother’s boarding house in Independence, Kansas. People who’ve seen the film version, starring William Holden and Kim Novak, remember their chemistry more than anything else. So much depends on getting the casting right so all the characters stir some longing, ignite some buried desire when they bounce off each other.
For the most part, Coleman and company get the job done, and the women are particularly effective in this production, constantly reminding everybody whether they “look pretty,” or if their dress is pretty, or their hair is pretty or even if they used to be pretty. (Their dresses, by the way, are persuasive vintage stuff, assembled by director Coleman.)
Everybody trades in something, Inge is saying, and a girl’s best bet is to catch a rich man at the height of her ripe succulence. In Kansas in the ’50s, that magic moment comes and goes in a flash, as Flo Owens (an anxious, pushy Stephanie Dunnam) explains to her eldest daughter Madge (an obediently blonde, wistful Grace Montie), the town’s hands-down prettiest girl and Newollah queen (“Halloween” spelled backwards). Madge is dating wealthy Alan Seymour (an affable Ivy League-ish John Ruegsegger), the town catch about to return to college after tonight’s picnic.
Mom, whose husband ran out on her, urges Madge to stop smiling at strangers and put her considerable allures into hooking Alan before he gets too far downstream. When Madge protests that she’s “only 18,” Flo is having none of it. “Yes, and then you’re 19, and then 20 and 21—and then 40,” she warns her dreamy daughter. This narrow window of opportunity wherein Madge might escape her job in the dime store, gain an adoring husband and “charge accounts in all the stores” is getting fogged up by a hobo with biceps.
Madge’s plain but brainy little sister Millie (a long-legged, bratty Maya Pearson) hates her big sis because “she’s the pretty one,” and Madge envies Millie’s smarts. The sisters poke at each other convincingly, and even get in a hair-yanking catfight.
Kindly old Mrs. Potts (a sweet faced, white-haired Georgia Clinton) loves having “a man around” and puts the drifter to work right away in the backyard she shares with the Owenses in Michelle Harvey’s efficient, evocative set design, with opposing back porches at two corners of the arena stage. Mrs. Potts only suitor was run off by her testy mother, an invalid she now tends to cheerfully when she calls from offstage.
Then there’s Rosemary Sydney (a comically snarling and painfully trapped Amber Devlin), the “old maid school teacher” who rents a room in the Owens’ maleless household. She’s all tarted up for a date with her longtime boyfriend Howard Bevans (a tipsily reeling and comically reluctant David Benn), a merchant from a nearby town. Their affair rises to the play’s dramatic high point when Rosemary, drunk and dreading another round of high school teaching about to start, plays her last desperate ace.
When uptight Rosemary first sees the drifter, she stares at him, unabashedly and hilariously—all but drooling over that shirtless beefcake on display, hauling stuff around the yard, teasing willing Millie, and giving the once-over twice to a mildly mincing Madge.
Is this a prairie bonfire about to go up in smoking flames, or what?
Well, not quite. Coleman’s otherwise astute casting eye falters here. Hal Carter, the drifter with the torso women supposedly ache for, is played by Haulston Mann, an energetic and capable young actor with a kicky haircut, a lily-white gym-built torso and a boyish grin that makes him instantly likeable. But is this dude the smoldering, hard-laboring, highly experienced chick-bait everybody talks about? Not really. Dangerous? Your kid brother is more of a wolfish threat.
Mann’s Hal is funny and touching when he hits up his old frat brother Alan for a job where he can “wear a tie,” and when he brags about his sexual exploits. He’s downright pitiful when he doubles over, crushed after the hypocrites strike out at him, a gut-punch reminding him of his “white trash” boyhood. But the spark that has to go off between restless Madge and studmuffin Hal doesn’t flare into enough of a flame to set the barn on fire. Montie’s Madge seems to feel more pathos than passion for the kid, and that’s not powerful enough in this drama to carry it to its end.