BWW Reviews: PICNIC Heats Up The Playhouse
Though we're still experiencing mild May weather, things are getting steamy at The Playhouse in San Antonio. The Playhouse's solid production of Willima Inge's Picnic, which runs through May 26th, is a riveting exploration of love and loneliness in a small Kansas town. While many other plays explore the same themes, few do so with this much heat. If there really was this much going on in Kansas, Dorothy would have had no reason to go to Oz.
Inge's 1953 play concerns drifter Hal Carter (Rodman Bolek) as he stumbles into the lives of Flo Owens (Tracie J. Coop) and her daughters over a hot Labor Day weekend. Though elder daughter Madge (Karie Ann Randol) seems content with her beau and Hal's college buddy Alan (Ty Mylnar), that changes as soon as she sees Hal's chiseled physique.
Though the play is now 60 years old, it is still as poignant and enthralling as ever. While many shows about Eisenhower-era America seem like a schmaltzy time capsule to modern audiences, Picnic still feels provocative and current. Though decades have passed, sexuality and gender roles are still hot topics.
Director Anthony Ciaravino clearly understands how and why this story resonates with a modern audience. Rather than focusing on the time period (though the thoughtfulness and accuracy regarding the time is definitely there), Ciaravino focuses on the relationships between these characters and the conflicts between their inner thoughts and feelings versus what they outwardly share with the world. Though the staging gets a bit muddy in full company moments, that's more due to the intimate nature of The Playhouse's Cellar Stage. Still, the best moments come in the smaller scenes, particularly those where certain characters hesitantly explore or acknowledge their lustful desires.
Ciaravino's crew also showcases quality work. Ian McGuane's lighting is warm and naturalistic, making it easy to buy the sunny outdoor setting of the play. Rose Kennedy's costumes, particularly the dresses worn by the female characters, are stunningly beautiful. And Alfy Valdez's set is unforgettable. Valdez fills every nook and cranny of the Cellar Stage to give us a fully realized backyard set, complete with grass, gravel, trees, and fireflies. The environment has a distinct texture and is an engrossing feast for the senses.
Like most productions at The Playhouse, the cast here is full of impeccable San Antonio talent. Tracie J. Coop plays the protective mother, Flo, with a perfectly stern, unsmiling Felicity Huffman-like quality. Catherine Babbitt is endearing as the loveable neighbor, Helen Potts. Chelsea Dyan Steele is a standout as Rosemary, the sassy, often emotional, larger than life schoolteacher. And the rest of the supporting players are all excellent, particularly Michael Benson whose focus never falters, even when receiving cat calls and slaps on the behind from an elderly patron in the front row.
Of the cast, there are two performers who remain ever so slightly more memorable than the rest. As Madge's tomboyish kid sister Millie, sixteen year old Madeleine Garcia is an absolute scene-stealer. Garcia demands attention of both the audience and the characters around her. With wit, beauty, and charm, she's a perfect fit for Millie, the teenage spitfire who yearns to be thought of as a desirable young woman. Her Millie is the complete package, and it's almost puzzling that Hal falls for Madge, the sister with the looks but not the charm, rather than the energetic and personable Millie.
As Hal, Rodman Bolek gives a terrific performance. With his Abercrombie model good looks, it's a no brainer that he has virtually every woman in this play swooning at his feet, but Bolek brings much more to Hal than a fantastic pair of pecs. Bolek ensures that Hal is manly, charming, sexy, and spirited but with a touch of vulnerability and boyish naiveté. Without a doubt, Bolek is a captivating leading man around whom all of Picnic's action revolves.
It would be tough for any leading lady paired aside Bolek to perform at his level, and unfortunately Karie Ann Randol isn't quite there yet. She's a bit reserved and tentative in her performance as Madge, allowing the character to take a puzzlingly passive role in her own life. Her Madge is a young woman who waits for things to happen to her rather than going after what she wants, making the final scene a bit artificial. Though it would be more satisfying to see the lead role of Madge played as a confident girl next door experiencing her first sexual experience and her first moments of rebellion, Randol nevertheless nails a few pivotal scenes. She's heartbreaking in the play's final moments, and she has plenty of steamy chemistry with Bolek.
Though it may be an older American drama, Picnic is still a moving and effective story worth telling, and the current production at The Playhouse tells it in a solid, professional way. While Inge's characters struggle to discover who they are and fight to realize what they want out of life, the production that they inhabit is on a much more solid footing.
Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
PICNIC plays the Cellar Theatre at The Playhouse, 800 W Ashby Place, San Antonio, TX 78212 now thru May 26. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for military and seniors, $15 students, and $10 children 12 and under.
For tickets and information, please visit www.theplayhousesa.org