By William Inge (Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University)

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William Inge's tragicomedy Picnic is both a product and a handsome, accurate portrayal of the 1950s. Its principal theme -- expectations fulfilled and betrayed -- is played out in a small Kansas town where conformity and received opinion palpably stifle youth, love and purpose.

The Webster Conservatory production, which opened last weekend in the Studio III theater in Webster Hall and plays again Dec. 8-12, fields a strong cast, headed by Shanara Gabrielle Schweizer as Madge Owens, the prettiest girl in town, who sees she has no future at all unless she marries Alan Seymour (Kevin Young), the son of the town's richest man. But then along comes Hal Carter (Enrique Bravo), a ne'er-do-well college buddy of Alan's, who can offer Madge nothing except a life she wants and can understand.

Brian Pracht's performance as middle-aged Howard Bevans is a genuine marvel. Jay Heiserman's artful and elaborate set and Dan Schoedel's lighting are first-class. Bill Lynch's direction is somewhat slow but sure and refreshingly faithful to Inge's text.

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