Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Theater review: Explore the irony of human nature in Picnic at Sanders Theatre
Happiness is like the elusive picnic: difficult to plan, hard to find, and seldom easy.
FORT WORTH Stolen Shakespeare Guild is passionate about classic theater. Their mission statement on the playbill cover states, “We seek to debunk the myth that Shakespeare and other forms of classic theater are irrelevant to the modern audience.” Their production of Picnic by William Inge is part of their annual programming of Pulitzer-winning plays and 50 years don’t tarnish or fade the relevance or impact of the master playwright. Picnic is as timeless and as tragic as its title.
A good picnic is an almost impossible event to plan. It is much better when it (if ever) “just happens.” There are so many unknown variables to planning - weather, bugs, what to wear, what not to wear, what to do, who will be there and who won’t, how to keep the potato salad cold, the wine chilled and the food hot, how to enjoy time on the lake and not have someone steal all your belongings on the beach - it’s exhausting and nearly futile. The time it takes to plan much less accomplish this pinnacle of Americana recreation is stressful. Yet it’s an American pastime. (Stress, that is) And it is iconic. It’s a … picnic.
Have your heard a dialogue similar to this?
“How was your surgery?”
“Well, it wasn’t a picnic.”
Picnics showcase all that is good in our lives, our friends, family, food, and fellowship. These are the things that transcend the daily desperation of ordinary lives, small dreams and buried desires. It’s a … picnic.
Inge ruthlessly exposes the flimsy, self-defined roles in society we drape around our shoulders, the restless longed-for dreams we try to force ourselves into as we desperately attempt to define ourselves by donning the one size fits all template of success in America. We can’t all be the quintessential All-American boy or girl, man or woman. That person does not exist. How can we maintain an appearance when we don’t know what we’re supposed to look like? What does exist is the relentless pursuit of trying to find the ephemeral, non-existent measure of success which is so fleeting that it is gone before we can find or even define it. Happiness is like the elusive picnic: difficult to plan, hard to find, and seldom easy.
I spoke to Director Bill Sizemore following what was really a well-crafted production of Picnic. I asked him what was his vision as a director and how did the final result meet his expectations? I also asked him what the surprises in the performance were.
Sizemore, who is very accomplished as an actor and a director, didn’t have to pause at all to have an answer. He began the creative process with a very clear vision. Sizemore stated that he wanted to show idols and idolatry. Men and women have idols, role models, standards that the culture defines and we are molded to fit in and assume. And we don’t all fit. We don’t all make it.
Like the lead characters in this mid-century idyllic setting, not everyone makes it to the picnic. The three-act play takes place in the backyards of two neighbors, middle-aged Flo Owens who has two daughters, the beautiful Madge and the bookish Millie, as well as her boarder, the old-maid school teacher Rosemary. They all live in the first house in this struggling middle-class neighborhood. The Owens’ lonely neighbor, Mrs. Helen Potts lives next door. Mrs. Potts takes in a young, charismatic vagrant, Hal, who she feeds in exchange for work around the house. Hal wreaks havoc in the lives of all those trying to go to the picnic. Hal is a former fraternity brother to Alan. Alan is the boyfriend of 18-year-old Madge, and the young man with all the money, opportunity and promise in town. Hal and Alan are dueling images of burgeoning male sexuality.
Stage Director Elia Kazan (who Inge wanted to direct the original production) commented critically about Inge’s script. Elia Kazan of Alan and Hal said this:
“Hal, I think, is what you hope for,” Kazan said, “and Alan is often what you wind up with. Hal is the dream f**k, the man who can take care of the car and the house and the lubricious needs of the lady of the house. However, the bills will never be paid on time and his eye will forever wander. Still, there are women always willing to enter this contract. Alan is the man the mother wants you to marry. He comes from good people; the homes and the cars are impeccable and get attention; the children and the future will glisten. But, but … there is no sparkle, no click, no passion. Daughters will always go where their hearts — or some other organ — take them. Poems and lives are not crafted from common sense, in love or anything else.”
That I believe was also the vision of Sizemore and Inge. Poems and lives (our dreams) are not based on common sense and so they remain our dreams. Stolen Shakespeare Guild captured this wistful longing artfully. I loved the poignancy of Helen Potts’ line when Hal sweeps a reluctant but longing Madge into his arms for an impromptu dance. Mrs. Potts, who knows longing herself, as her mother annulled her one day old marriage and sent her husband away years ago, says, “There’s nothing like real people dancing.” And we all wait on the sidelines for the handsome prince to sweep us into his arms and into happily ever after.
The Sanders Theatre is a black box theater and seating is limited and intimate. Every seat was a good one! The theater was immaculate and well appointed, and every bit of the stage was utilized as staging for the production. The set was much like that of the original stage design and the revival. As always, I was impressed with railings and fences that functioned, doors that didn’t bang, and period construction.
The design worked well, perhaps the set and the costumes all looked a bit too shiny and new for townspeople who struggle in a difficult middle class economy, but perhaps it was just a reflection of the diligence of a spit and polish generation who took pride in how things looked. The old maid school teachers were by far the best dressed in their beautifully tailored suits, gloves and hats. Madge, was conservatively well dressed but with very little elements to her costume that reveal her passion or awakening sexuality.
The production had a stunning original soundtrack that really created a tasteful and well-executed atmosphere to the production. It was never overpowering and frequently left as quietly as it appeared. The actors and the stage manager orchestrated some poignant and beautifully integrated moments between the music and the action particularly in Act Two with the integration of Satie’s “Gymnopedie,” where the spaces in between the ebb and the flow of the dialogue and the music seemed like an effortless, elegant dance.
The show ran like clockwork, with a sophisticated lighting plot, quick costume changes, cramped backstage areas, and fast entrances and exits, this Picnic was managed well. Likewise with the cast, the very few bumps were minimal and well-supported by an excellent ensemble.
Every character has a wealth of material from the playwright and the situation. The dialogue is full of great comedy and great pathos.
There is an enormous balancing act to make this work. I was impressed that the pace of the production, the humor and the escalating angst towards the climax did not get railroaded by an individual character. It is easy to derail a train when you are always driving at top speed, but the only train that got away was the one with Hal on it.
Hal, played by Nicholas Ross, and Madge, played by Connie Kegg, although central characters, were adept at sharing the stage well with their cast. The chemistry between Hal and Madge was not the driving force I had seen in other productions but it worked. The dynamics between a very talented Dave Harris as Alan and Madge, who had everything but chemistry, was tremendous. It hurt, it looked so good. Marisa Duran as Millie Owens was brilliant. Miss Duran was clever, lonely, ambitious, competitive, and fragile as only a teenager can be. When her character said, “I am never going to fall in love. I will be famous so I never have to fall in love,” we felt her pain. The lady next to me cried.
The show was really beautifully cast. Flo, as played by the very capable Cynthia Mathews, and Mrs. Potts, portrayed by the earnest and oh-so-lonely Barrie Aguire, were valiant anchors in the emotional tsunamis of the characters in Picnic. The dramatic depths of Sarah Greenman’s Rosemary and her longed-for security by husband candidate Howard Bevans, as played by Mark Winter, were crafted well by this group, who steered just left of a potential melodrama storm and navigated through lust and longing, past coercion and into the quiet desperation of marital bliss. The roles, like so many of Inge’s characters, are a complete dissection. Everything is exposed, measured and weighed, and then somehow all put back together as best can be done. Not an easy task but capably done by Stolen Shakespeare Guild.
I asked the director his thoughts on using the natural comedy present (he did this very well) to keep from drowning in the drama of it all. He gave me a funny little smile and said, “It’s kind of like Easter Sunday. People get the resurrection but they forget that first there had to be a Good Friday. That is the dance between the comedy and the tragedy.”
I’ll repeat Mrs. Potts’ quote from earlier. “There’s nothing like real people dancing.”
Don’t miss this Picnic. Come as you are, there’s something for everyone.
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