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A CurtainUp Review

" Madge, a pretty girl doesn't have long - just a few years when she's the equal of kings and can walk out of a shanty like this and live in a palace with a doting husband who'll spend his life making her happy. Because once, once she was young and pretty. If she loses that chance, she might just as well throw all her prettiness away. "— Flo

" I'm only eighteen."— Madge

" And next summer you'll be nineteen, and then twenty, and then twenty-one, and then forty."— Flo
Sebastian Stan
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
It's Labor Day in the late 40s and early 50s in the American Heartland that William Inge knew so well. The only excitement on the horizon of the all female Owens and Potts households is the annual town picnic. That is until the rippling Abs of Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan) young drifter hired by Mrs. Potts (Ellen Burstyn) to do chores around her backyard knocks them all off balance. There's something about that shirtless stranger's swaggering presence that stirs the dormant longings, and frustrations. Hal's animal magnetism distracts even Millie Owen (Madeline Martin) the youngest, and brightest of these females without men is temporarily distracted from her determination to escape the go-nowhere lives all around her.

The only one not irresistibly drawn to the handsome young stranger Millie's pragmatic widowed mother Flo (Mare Winningham). Her hopes are too firmly fixed on having her exceptionally pretty daughter Madge marry the town's big catch, rich college boy Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport). To her Hal, who's actually a former college mate of Alan's arrival is too much a reminder of her own disastrous marriage.

Picnic Movie Poster
Sebastian Stan's abs and Maggie Grace in her party dress with its layers of petticoats look a lot like this movie poster of William Holden and Kim Novak.
Sebastian Stan's buffed to a high sheen physique is indeed impressive and Maggie Grace is certainly as pretty a Madge Owen as you could wish for. And, in case you haven't checked out the movie lately, William Holden was just the right age to play the young boxer in Golden Boy which is also currently enjoying a Broadway revival but he was thirty-six when he played Hal, and somewhat more over aged than the 30-year-old Stan. At any rate, it's the seasoned on and off-Broadway veterans like Ellen Burstyn, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel and Reed Birney who make William Inge's bittersweet summer romance well worth seeing again.

in Sam Gold's finely detailed production Sure the play is dated. Like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio stories, Inge's portraits of lives of quiet desperation in the Kansas milieu he grew up in today comes off as more quaint than with the sort of enduring social relevance of Arthur Miller's characters. And yet, with the right actors and a director sensitive to the small every day subtleties of Inge's world, the dramas exploding in the backyard of those unpretentious homes over just two days can still convey the universality of the loneliness and regrets about choices made and avoided.

Burstyn Winningham, Marvel and Birney are those exactly right actors. Burstyn and Winningham bring enormous heart and strength to the older women soldiering through difficult, mostly joyless lives. Marvel and Birney practically steal the show, she as the brash old maid high school teacher Rosemary Sydney and he as her boring boyfriend Howard Bevans. Madeleine Martin, who's previously made strong impressions in a more recent Pulitzer Prize winning play, August: Osage County, and a British import, Harper Regan, is wonderfully engaging as the sassy bookworm Millie.

Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
All these actors skillfully bring out the very human warmth of this slice of a by-gone way of life, so that you tend to overlook the playwright's otherwise hard to ignore shortcomings. The chief of these shortcomings is Inge's cliché driven view of women as repressed and with one-note life goals. And the nowadays ubiquitous Sam Gold proves himself to be the director with the right touch for recreating that claustrophobic Kansas back yard.

Gold has alsodrawn believable if not award winning performances from the Broadway newcomers who are the heated center of this two day weekend. He's also given Chris Perfetti, Maddie Corman and Cassie Beck a chance to shine in cameo roles — Perfetti as the Madge-smitten newspaper delivery boy, Corman and Beck as Rosemary's schoolteacher Plain Jane school teacher pals. He's also wisely opted to eliminate one intermission thus bringing this trip back to pre-feminist, small town Kansas in at a brisk two hours

It's the extent of the Picnic women's sexual repression that makes them light-headed at the sight of a bare chested, sexy male like Hal. They typify the tendency of Inge's women to associate happiness and success with romance and marriage. It's that limited ambition that led led Flo to waste her own spell as the town beauty on a drinker and bad provider and now drives her to push Madge to snag a rich husband before her beauty loses its power to take her out of her impoverished world. It's only the occasional odd girl out like Millie who sees marriage as a trap but, true to Inge's vision, Hal's arrival reveals that underneath it all, the bookish teenager would like a taste of the romantic attention lavished on pretty girls like her sister. The play's most memorable scene, a backyard dance party initiated by Hal also throws Rosemary and Howard's relationship off balance with a night of sex suddenly making marriage to Hal a desperate imperative for a last chance at happiness.

That backyard yard scene smoothly choreographed Chase Brock but what makes it so memorable is the non verbal acting that lays bare everyone's inner tumult. Reed Birney is especially riveting as he stands on the Owens porch watching the fun dancing take on high drama as the lawn is taken over by the meant for each other Hal and Madge, Actually there's another not easily forgotten scene. That's the pre-daylight scene after the intermission, when Rosemary tries to persuade the reluctant Howard to marry her. It's both comic and incredibly. Rosemary's comeback to Howard's ineffectual "Well. . . ." with "A well's a hole in the ground, Howard" gets a big laugh. The laughter continues as Howard turns feisty declaring he's not going to marry a woman who says "you gotta marry me,Howard" without at least saying "please." But watching Marvel's Rosemary become beaten and humble and plead "Please marry me, Howard" turns amusement into pity.

If you wish Picnic could have ended on a less "anything's possible in a love at first sight story" note, the playwright himself had second thoughts about it. He actually wrote another version called Summer Brave with a more realistic ending. Unlike Picnic, that version won no prizes and lasted for only 18 performances when the ANTA Playhouse mounted it in 1975, The stagecraft, typical of everything at the elegant American Airlines theater is impeccable. Andrew Lieberman's set conveys the simple, lower middle class neighborhood where anything exciting lies far beyond the tops of the two houses. and gives the audiences glimpses of the interiors visible through the windows of the Owens house. Jane Cox's lighting takes us through The change from morning to sunset and pre-dawn and David Zinn's costumes true to the mid-century period.

In a season that seems dedicated to Pulitzer Prize winners, Picnic may not be the one with the biggest box office stars or a by a playwright whose name still rings an instant bell with theater goers. However, given the top drawer ensemble and staging, you could do a lot worse than spending two hours with William Inge's small town Kansans.
Picnic by William Inge
Directed by Sam Gold
Cast: Reed Birney (Howard Bevans), Maggie Grace (Madge Owens), Elizabeth Marvel (Rosemary Sidney), Sebastian Stan (Hal Carter), Mare Winningham(Flo Owens), Ellen Burstyn (Helen Potts), Madeleine Martin (Millie Owens), Ben Rappaport (Alan Seymour), Cassie Beck (Christine Schoenwalder), Maddie Corman (Irma Kronkite), Chris Perfetti (Bomber).
Sets: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: David Zinn
Lighting: Jane Cox
Sound: Jill BC Du Boff
Choreography: Chase Brock
Fight Director: Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Hair and Wig Design: Tom Watson
Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson
Stage Manager: Jill Cordle
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, with 1 intermission Roundabout Company American Air Lines Theater West 42nd Street
From 12/14/12; opening 1/13/13; closing 2/24/13.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 10th press performance
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