I love seeing new works onstage, but sometimes it’s great to be reminded that every era had its fine playwrights and their work should be seen more often. William Inge (1913-1963) is such a writer.
His work seems antique to some today, but in its day it was as in the moment as Tracy Letts’ current scripts (such as August: Osage County). In fact, the naturalistic style that Inge used in works like Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957) was a harbinger for many contemporary playwrights. His best work was probably Picnic (1953), a show that earned a Pulitzer Prize and became a memorable 1955 film starring William Holden and Kim Novak.
The play is being very credibly staged by the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music’s drama program, in a brief run (April 21-25, concluding with a Sunday afternoon performance). Although the dialogue is extremely conversational, the tale of a handsome drifter who turns a group of women upside down feels a tad quaint by today’s standards. But once you adjust to some of the conventions of a half-century ago in terms of social mores and behavior, it would be hard to find a more compelling piece of drama.
Betty Owens (Allyson West) works hard as a single mom in the 1950s to raise her two daughters, beautiful Madge (Clare Ward) and smart but shy Millie (Caroline Shannon). She’s pleased that Madge has a boyfriend, Alan Seymour (Parker Searfoss), who comes from a wealth family. That’s the best path, Betty is certain, to rise above their blue-collar existence. Millie has the smarts to do more, but she envies her pretty sister, who has boys flocking to pay attention to her.
Their very normal existence is disrupted one early September when Hal Carter (Stephen Shore) shows up, a handsome drifter who, it turns out, was a fraternity brother of Alan. Hal charms Millie and then surreptitiously woos Madge, who responds to his animal magnetism, much to the dismay of Betty and others.
An air of repressed frustration and longing for passion pervades this play. Small-town, rural Kansas doesn’t offer much in the way of spark for young people — or for adults, represented most acutely by Rosemary Snyder (Abigail Butcher), a spinster teacher who yearns to be married and find romance and happiness. Her sights have been set on Howard Bevans (Alec Silberblatt), an unimaginative shopkeeper, but he takes a ton of persuasion to be convinced to marry her — and all signs are that happiness might not be their destination either.
The one glimmer of hope focuses on Millie, who has the talent and aspires to move to New York City and be a writer, probably telling the stories of her family and acquaintances back in Kansas.
Picnic is a finely realized production, especially the visually appealing set by Tammy Honesty. It’s two houses, but what we see are reach porches and steps with skeletal frames suggesting the modest structures and their roofs. Despite the title, Inge’s play never takes us to the actual picnic: It’s the imagined excitement that fuels the action and represents the appeal the women imagine although never quite realize.
Since the houses don’t obstruct our view, we see a sweeping, cloud-strewn Kansas sky that’s an emotional backdrop as the story proceeds from bright midday to a romantic sunset as everyone leaves for the picnic, then a surreptitious scene in the moonlight and finally a harsh morning after. (Michael Wolmer’s lighting design handled this beautifully.)
CCM drama chair Richard Hess staged this production with an able student cast, several of whom play roles a generation older than they really are: West is solid and anxious as the girls’ mother; Taylor Cloyes convincingly plays Mrs. Potts, an older neighbor who's trapped caring for her ancient, unseen mother; and Silberblatt’s Bevans has a kind of nervous anxiety and loose-limbed awkwardness that overcomes the fact that he’s 20 years too young for his part. Butcher’s spinster teacher came across as a woman who fears her future, and that made her a good choice for the role.
Hess’ central players were well suited to their characters. As Millie, Shannon had a nice blend of tomboyish spirit and a hint of womanhood, seasoned with a sharp mind and a keen ability for observation. Searfoss’ Alan was earnest and well intended, if a bit naive — the role is not so well developed, and we're never quite certain why he befriended Hal at school, unless out of sense of noblesse oblige.
Ward has the good looks to play Madge (it’s the role Kim Novak played in the film), but she ably conveyed the young woman’s spirit and desire to find something more, even if it’s misguided. And as self-centered Hal, Shore had the beefy physical presence required but also the air of wounded animal who couldn't understand why people constantly misjudge him. It’s an intriguing character, and Shore handled it with sophistication.
With this kind of training, CCM drama students are surely getting the kind of experience that will serve them well as they pursue a career in the acting profession. And aren’t we lucky to be able to watch when a classic play like Picnic is brought back to life?
PICNIC, presented by College-Conservatory of Music on the University of Cincinnati campus, continues through April 25. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.