Feel the Love

Life was no Picnic, even in Kansas in the '50s

What's most admirable about the Kirkwood Theatre Guild is its lack of pretension. This is an all-amateur organization and proud of it. Its members seem to understand that the noun "amateur" is derived from the Latin amator, or "lover." To be an amateur is to love what you do. In Kirkwood, that love is felt on both sides of the stage.

Nor is the term "amateur" in any way a pejorative. The Guild's all-amateur revival of Anything Goes was better cast than was last month's professional mounting at the Rep. Two seasons ago, Dorothy Davis' bravura turn in the lead role of Noel Coward's Relative Values was among the most impressive performances by an actress in St. Louis in 2001.

If there's nothing quite that remarkable in the current production of William Inge's Picnic, the evening is still filled with pleasant surprises. Perhaps the biggest is to discover how involving this 50-year-old warhorse still can be. Yet even as the play continues to engage audiences, it has assumed the aura of a time capsule, a nostalgic return to the 1950s, back when people could still burn trash in their yards and the new school term began on the day after Labor Day.

Picnic allows audiences to eavesdrop on a languid world populated almost exclusively by women: Old, young, shy, beautiful. Washed-out widows and spinster schoolteachers. Each has settled into a routine that accommodates her private disappointments and unspoken yearnings. Then, on the last day of summer, everything changes abruptly when this fortress of femininity is breached by the arrival of a charismatic young drifter named Hal Carter.

If the actor playing Hal is too bullying or strident, he runs the risk of turning viewers against the character and the play. Happily, there is no such problem here. Not only does Steve Schene evince a commanding presence, his Hal is also just unsure enough about his place in the world that we can care about him.

But, of course, Hal is only the play's catalyst; Picnic is primarily concerned with the women. As Rosemary Sydney, the aging high-school teacher who uses sarcasm as a shield against loneliness, Jan Meyer finds the character's bluff humor and much of her pathos.

Especially intriguing is Jennifer Losi's casting as Madge Owens. "Madge is the pretty one," the audience is repeatedly told. Yet, in contrast to the striking Kim Novak (who portrayed the same role in the unforgettable 1956 movie), Losi's Madge is more like a small-town beauty. This Madge seems to sense that if ever she leaves the security of the tiny Kansas burg in which she is queen, her brand of beauty may not be enough to suffice.

Early in Act 2, Losi shares a touching scene with the delightful Leah Norris, who plays her book-smart sister Millie. Millie has called a truce in the usual sibling rivalry. She has a date with Hal, and she needs advice. "Madge," the younger sister asks in desperation, "how do you talk to boys?" Throughout the scene, Madge paints her fingernails, an activity that allows Losi to forget about acting. As staged here, this exchange is William Inge at his most realized.

Alas, it must also be noted that the role of Mrs. Potts, the wise elderly next-door neighbor, is miscast. This actress is at least twenty years too young, depriving the production of its anchor and conscience.

But when this Picnic is true to the material -- as, for instance, in the celebrated dance between Hal and Madge that precipitates the climax -- Inge's unique talent is clearly revealed. His plays may lack the overt poetry of Tennessee Williams, the epic reach of Eugene O'Neill or the searing social conscience of Arthur Miller, but Inge was unflinching in his desire to reveal the bittersweet ambivalence of living, breathing, identifiable people. A half-century after Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, it continues to remind us that we must live with sadness as well as joy and that our sins and our virtues mean little against the grandeur of a searing Kansas sunset.

 
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