BWW Review: Will Davis Casts An Imaginative, Modern Lens on William Inge's PICNIC
In putting together American Theater Company's current production of William Inge's classic play PICNIC, Artistic Director Will Davis said he wanted his cast "to reflect the playwright and the powerful forces in his own psyche that kept him from happiness and fulfillment." Indeed, the actors Davis has cast certainly unlock a great deal of humanity in PICNIC's characters. As outsider Hal, Molly Brennan delivers a particularly inspired performance and bestows an immense depth of feeling into her role. While this is the first time I've seen a staging of PICNIC, I imagine that Hal is often played more broadly and more stereotypically typecast as a "macho" man-aggressive and assertive. In Brennan's Hal, however, there is a beautiful earnestness and genuine desire for acceptance and belonging. This also makes Hal's desire for Madge (Malic White) a more powerful longing for human connection. Alongside Brennan, White's Madge also has a similar desire for understanding-though the role could be played more desperate still. White's self-assured take on the character does not allow Madge to emit as much desperation as she might.
Davis's decision to employ what many might consider non-traditional casting for an Inge play likewise elevates other roles in the piece. As schoolteacher Rosemary, Michael Turrentine emits a heartbreaking loneliness. Rosemary's desperation to marry her boyfriend Howard (the perfectly suave-yet-befuddled Robert Cornelis) comes across so clearly in Turrentine's performance. Turrentine bestows upon Rosemary an aching need to avoid a life of solitude, and it is one of the most stirring performances in Davis's production. As Madge's mother Flo, Patricia Kane displays legitimate parental affection, and we feel her torn between the desire to protect Madge (along with her sister Millie) and her wish for her children to find happiness. As Madge's younger sister Millie, Alexia Jasmene finds a terrific balance between awkward and endearing. And in Jasmene's Millie, we again see the clear desire for acceptance from others-a narrative thread that pervades this entire production of PICNIC.
And while Davis has assembled a terrific ensemble who give freely to the cast of characters in PICNIC, other elements of the production remain murky. Joe Schermoly's set has the feeling of a rehearsal room-much of the stage is occupied by an open platform covered in garish floral carpet. In one corner, we see a piano near which sits Laura McKenzie, who takes on the role of Mrs. Potts and a baffling assortment of local schoolteachers. Though McKenzie tries her best to distinguish the teachers and delivers a flurry of a performance, it becomes difficult to tell the roles apart at times. The back of the set includes a wooden structure meant to suggest the town's dock, though it is only used once in a quiet moment between Hal and Madge.
The set also includes a plethora of wicker baskets strewn about the platform, filled with piles upon piles of fabric. As the play progresses, the cast devotes a considerable amount of time to folding these fabric pieces. While perhaps this is meant to suggest the monotony of life in a small town in which traditional gender roles are endlessly enforced, I was not sure that the production needed all that folding. More confusing still was an interlude in which the whole ensemble appeared onstage to frost cakes with bright pink icing. Again, I imagine this was meant to evoke the tedious domesticity of life in the world of PICNIC, but the cake charade put a halt in the play's action.
As with Davis's first American Theater Company production MEN ON BOATS, PICNIC employs movement as a core of the production. Davis and Evvie Allison supply the choreography, with mixed results. In a key scene, Davis and Allison's choreography for Hal and Madge has an elevated moment in which Brennan and White literally dance on the edge of their characters' desire (another theme which Davis aims to clearly evoke). This choreography works as a lovely expression of Madge and Hal's longing for one another. Though once they come together, Brennan and White's onstage chemistry feels oddly lacking. In other spots, the choreography feels more haphazard and less in keeping with the narrative of the piece.
By far, the most compelling reason to see this PICNIC is to witness Davis's cast at work. It's quite clear that PICNIC is a personal play for Davis to stage. And yet perhaps that explains why certain elements of the production lack cohesion. Fortunately, the humanity of PICNIC's characters is heartily felt here, particularly with Brennan's spectacular take on Hal.
PICNIC runs through April 23 at American Theater Company. Tickets are $20-$38. For more information, visit atcweb.org.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow