By Philip Pearce
You’d never guess it from the silence of the local press, but The Western Stage has just opened a new production of William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning Picnic.
It’s a play that shares with Inge’s other major works, Bus Stop and Come Back Little Sheba, a conviction that all it takes to give the kiss of life to a dead situation is to bring on an exuberant and muscular stranger. In Picnic he’s Hal, a handsome drifter with a checkered past, played with high energy and charm by Ezra Hernandez. Hal dives into a henhouse full of unfulfilled Midwestern females, struts his stuff, and leaves the women, each in her own way, stunned but liberated.
Fresh off a freight train, Hal is hired to do odd jobs for dowdy but shrewd Helen Potts, played with wry conviction by Anna Schumacher. Helen welcomes an injection of some uninhibited masculinity into a household previously shared only with a sickly and whining mother. More aware than anyone else of what is really happening, she becomes a voice of sanity in the flap and turmoil Hal begins to bring to the neighborhood.
Next door to Helen four women live under one roof in seeming harmony but with some repressed underlying issues. In charge is anxious and controlling Flo Owens (the firm and determined Cheryl Games), the lone female holdout against the ingratiating Hal. Flo pressures her beautiful older daughter Madge (Nikki Moon) to speed up vague marriage plans with her conventional boyfriend Alan Seymour, smoothly acted by Rhett Wheeler as a last minute substitute for the ailing Ethan Dotson-Kelly, who may or may not return to the cast. Flo also frets at the rebelliousness of her younger daughter Millie (Ari Edwards), who explodes with teenaged resentment at sister Madge being “the beautiful one,” while Madge is frankly bored with just being gazed at like some unattainable work of art.
The Owens’ lodger Rosemary Sydney (Joelle McGrath) is all svelte aging career-girl: independence on the surface. She joins hen party outings with fellow schoolteachers Irma and Christine (Angel Dratz and Cindy Womack), but is inwardly frustrated by the boring predictability of her bibulous gentleman caller Howard Bevans (Jeff Heyer).
By the time Hal has been forced to evade the local cops aboard another freight, he has liberated Rosemary into demanding a proposal from the reluctant Howard, helped awkward Millie discover that new clothes and a few discreet cosmetics make her an acceptable date for the Labor Day picnic, and drawn Madge into joining him in a risky escape from small town life and attitudes.
It’s an attractive cast in an attractive setting and pleasing costumes, and that in its way could be a weakness. The script has areas of underlying darkness and pain that are hardly touched in this production. For all his appealing vigor and assurance, Hernandez underplays elements of his character’s back story that even Hal Carter himself fleetingly acknowledges are deep and ugly. His macho account of a raunchy limo ride with two martini swigging older women, for example, is offered as just a kind of humorous college boy prank, whereas it evinces a sordid and manipulative male chauvinism that should make us question the kind of happy ending Madge will have when the bloom has gone off her romance with Hal.
The cast work together harmoniously enough but it all tends to look and sound like just another agreeable rural comedy. Only at moments, like Helen’s closing reflections with the dejected Flo and the powerful sequence where a drunken Rosemary’s brittle charm cracks and she howls out “Marry me, Howard,” does the show come briefly to terms with some of the less attractive truths Inge seems to have had in mind.
Picnic plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 through June 1st in the Western Stage Studio Theater.
Photo of Ezra Hernandez, Cheryl Games and Nikole Moon by Melissa Chin-Parker