Slim Pickings

Picnic fails to serve a satisfying main course.

All the sad young men, drifting through the town

Drinking up the night, trying not to drown

-- "Ballad of All the Sad Young Men," by Thomas J. Wolf Jr. and Frances Landesman

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Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company
Through November 15
303-893-4100, denvercenter.org
Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis Streets

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William Inge's Picnic so entirely typifies the ethos of the 1950s that it forces a director to make a basic decision: Should he stage the play in a straightforward manner and hope that audiences sense the genuinely powerful emotional undercurrent beneath the dated characters, symbolism and language, or should he somehow find a way to step back and comment on the America of that strange decade?

The 1950s saw prosperity, increasing suburbanization and a surface tranquility. But there was also savage racism, a silencing of all political dissent, and the menacing shadow of the atom bomb. All of this was reflected in a conventional and homogeneous culture, as well as intense sexual repression. The norm was Doris Day teasing Rock Hudson through movie scene after movie scene until she finally trapped him into marriage. There must have been extramarital sex, but no one in polite middle-class society spoke of it. Above all, homosexuality was taboo. There was a kind of mythology of beautiful young men, tormented by an unnamable secret, who were purer yet also more sexualized than those who engaged in the regular rough and tumble of sex. The yearning "Ballad of All the Sad Young Men," which was written circa 1958, took its title from a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- representative of another iconic and romantically doomed generation. Of course, there were stirrings of dissent. The Beat generation was beginning its long road trip. The figure of the drifter, the holy hobo, the man forever outside society, took hold of the popular imagination. Stories in women's magazines were full of heroines forced to choose between the good, reliable guy and the fascinating rebel. Picnic, in which a young drifter galvanizes a small community, was written in 1953. Marlon Brando roared into town with his motorcycle gang in The Wild One in 1954, responding to a question about what he was rebelling against with "Whaddya got?" Jack Kerouac sent Dean Moriarty On the Road in 1957. And in 1958, in Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending, the enigmatic Val arrived to rescue poor, trapped Lady from her cage of violence and ice. These men -- represented by Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift -- were the super-studs of their generation. It was not a world that Carrie and her Sex and the Citychums, busily chasing men of wealth and status, would recognize.

The drifter in Picnic is named Hal Carter. He's a blusterer, lover, lost soul, lawbreaker, truth teller and fake. It's fitting that his odyssey began when he was betrayed by his mother -- in 1950s mythology, women (except for the young, soulful, pretty ones) symbolized society. It was their job to tame and symbolically castrate their men. The Kansas community Hal enters is choking on its own conventionality. Hal does odd jobs for a local woman, takes off his shirt -- and pretty soon everything's spinning. Old-maid schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney is lunging at his body. Helen Potts, never married -- or rather, married once, in name only, before her mother destroyed the relationship -- is full of wistfulness. And the three-woman family consisting of Flo Owens and her two daughters, the tomboyish Millie and the beautiful Madge, is all aflutter. Flo tries in vain to keep her girls at home. Millie dons a dress for Hal. And Madge, naturally, falls in love.

Director Nagle Jackson has chosen to play Picnicstraight, but he made a casting mistake that throws the whole production off kilter. Elijah Alexander, who plays Hal, is a good actor, vigorous and expressive, but he simply doesn't fit the role. He lacks vulnerability and youth; there's nothing otherworldly about him. And despite a lean torso and massive muscles, Alexander is neither sexy nor sensual. The three Owenses, too, seem a touch pallid. Shannon Koob has some nice moments as Millie, particularly when she realizes that, even though she's gotten herself all prettied up, Hal is more interested in Madge than in her -- but overall, she's too subdued. Melissa Murphy has the delicate, Natalie Wood-style beauty required for Madge. She's charming, and everything she says rings true. What's missing is the flicker of sexual heat that Hal will eventually fan into flame. Indeed, there seems to be no chemistry at all between Murphy and Alexander. As Flo, Robin Moseley, too, seems to give less than her all. Her tight-lipped repressiveness is convincing, but her buried rage and grief are less so -- or at least until the play's final moments.

But the extraordinary work of three actors in smaller roles makes this production well worth seeing. Annette Helde is so vulnerable, naked and ridiculous as Rosemary that it hurts to watch her. As she throws herself at Hal and then, later, begs her buttoned-up businessman beau Howard to marry her, you want to turn your eyes away. This is the kind of magnificently reckless acting I associate with Vanessa Redgrave and Emma Thompson. Randy Moore plays Howard. Fortunately, he doesn't set a foot wrong, because it would be so easy for his scenes with Rosemary to degenerate into farce. Not that Moore doesn't make the role funny; he does. But his timing and control are exquisite. His Howard is not a bad man. He's sorry for Rosemary. Perhaps he even loves her a little. But he has no idea what to do with the raging typhoon of hormones and sexual neediness she's become. The fact that Helde literally towers over Moore only emphasizes Howard's haplessness.

As Helen Potts, Kathleen M. Brady shows just how powerful quiet goodness can be. Sure, Helen's confused and sometimes downright dumb, but all her instincts are true. She, too, wants attention from handsome Hal, but she earns it with kindness and compassion; she's all motherly amplitude to Flo's hard edges. At one point, she tells Hal she's made a Lady Baltimore cake, and he gives her a grateful kiss. It's the evening's sweetest moment.

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