"What can you do with the love that you feel? Where can you take it?" asks an eighteen-year-old girl caught in an emotional tug-of-war in William Inge's Picnic. When her mother replies, "I never found out," the young woman makes a gut-wrenching decision that represented the breaking of new theatrical ground in 1953 America. In fact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a sensual drifter's impact on the lives of four Kansas women generated a storm of controversy when it was first produced on Broadway, though not because Inge delved into the secret fears and longings of ordinary Americans. Instead, the scandal erupted when audiences became preoccupied with the fact that leading man Ralph Meeker took off his shirt on stage.
Thankfully, no such obsession with petty issues impedes the Arvada Center's current staging of the Inge potboiler. And though a few of the portrayals here gloss over the playwright's profound examination of the nature of desire and love, director Terry Dodd's vibrant production should strike a nerve or two among contemporary theater-goers.
All of the action takes place in the shared backyard of two clapboard houses overlooking the Kansas prairie (a painted backdrop worthy of Grant Wood). One of the homes belongs to an elderly woman, Helen Potts (Liz Jury), who cares for her invalid mother and must therefore occasionally engage a hired hand to keep things in order. On this particular Labor Day weekend, Helen has retained the services of Hal Carter (Richard J. Nelson), a newly arrived vagrant whose well-toned body and rugged good looks quickly become the subject of gossip around town.
Across the yard, Flo Owens (Julia Elstun Payne) is a middle-aged widow who makes ends meet in her spacious home by renting a room to a spinster schoolteacher, Rosemary Sydney (Billie McBride); Rosemary's longtime boyfriend, 42-year-old hardware salesman Howard Bevans (Frank Oden), has become something of a local legend by managing to avoid marriage for several years. Eminently aware that her two daughters must catch an available man before their looks fade, Flo prods her older girl, the eighteen-year-old Madge (Trina Magness), to talk marriage with her clean-cut but colorless boyfriend, Alan Seymour (Christopher Tabb). Flo also encourages the younger sister, Millie (C. Kelly Douglass), to abandon her tomboyish ways.
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We soon learn that Alan and Hal, a former football star, were college buddies and that Hal's constant troubles are the result of being the son of an alcoholic father (Inge himself was an alcoholic who committed suicide in 1973). A "piece of Arkansas white trash" with a history of taking advantage of younger women, Hal is certainly ill-suited for any kind of social success in Eisenhower's America (though his notorious past would seem to make him an ideal candidate for high office these days). As a result, Hal drifts from town to town--until he falls in love with young Madge and their ensuing relationship sets them both on a collision course with society's sacred shibboleths.
Nelson and Magness are affecting as the two star-crossed lovers, as are Oden and McBride as the older couple. However, it's difficult to feel anything for Rosemary when she growls and barks at Howard to marry her; we're inclined to root for Howard, who really ought to take a stand for middle-aged bachelors everywhere and resist a future picking out curtains and color schemes and dealing with a disagreeable housemate. Instead, Oden's vulture-pecked loner caves in to McBride's strident demands and, as a result, their relationship is reduced to a stereotype.
Otherwise, though, this is a well-acted production. Douglass and Tabb deliver winning performances in their supporting roles, and Dodd's treatment of the play is occasionally illuminating--as is his blessedly brief director's note. Consisting only of a short quote from famed director Elia Kazan, it reads, "Inge plays best with a dash of hysteria." And though that's generally a healthy recipe, a dose or two more of genuine emotion in certain scenes would add just the right touch to this most personal of Inge's plays.--Lillie
Picnic, through February 22 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.