Picnic: Theater Review

Picnic Sebastian Stan Maggie Grace - P 2013
Joan Marcus
Sam Gold's production doesn't tap the full emotional range of this minor key bout of small-town 1950s claustrophobia, but the revival nonetheless offers elements to savor.

Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan play the lovers in this Broadway revival of William Inge's 1953 drama, with an ensemble that also includes Ellen Burstyn.

NEW YORK – With their midcentury mores and soft-edged melodrama woven out of lives colored by despondency, emptiness and sexual repression, William Inge’s plays remain very much rooted in their period. Yet there’s something undeniably pleasurable about sinking into the vivid evocation of small-town Middle America in his 1953 Pulitzer winner, Picnic. While the heat between the central couple in director Sam Gold’s Broadway revival could have been turned up a notch, the veil of melancholy hanging over the play’s characters generates a quiet poignancy.

That mood is established by Andrew Lieberman’s set design even before the action begins. It depicts two modest neighboring Kansas houses with adjacent porches that share a backyard. Open kitchen windows reveal a detailed interior that adds to the homey picture, accompanied by music wafting from the radio and the whistle of a passing train. But beyond those faded clapboard houses is a solid wall of corroded metal, which might be a barn, but also a symbolic prison. There’s not a patch of trees or sky in this view, bathed in gorgeous naturalistic lighting by Jane Cox. The visuals suggest the feelings of despair, suffocation and frustrated desire that permeate the stillness of this sleepy rural town. The outlook from here is a wall.

So when rugged drifter Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan) wanders along and strips to his waist while doing yard work for Mrs. Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn), it’s not surprising that the heads of a cluster of women are instantly turned. Hal’s unabashed sexuality, manliness and distinct whiff of danger make him an unsettlingly exotic specimen in these parts.

For those of us who have previously experienced Inge’s play only in Joshua Logan’s 1955 film version, that intoxicating stranger is forever sculpted in the form of William Holden. Even if, strictly speaking, he was too old for the part, it was easy to believe that Madge Owens, the dreamy local beauty played by Kim Novak, would succumb to his rough-hewn charms.

Stan lacks the signs of weathered experience that seem essential to the role. The actor’s buff, oiled torso and eight-pack abs have clearly just stepped out of a 21st-century gym. Hal has the cocky swagger of a former college football star but also a gnawing awareness of his shortcomings, being a dropout with no prospects. His boastful adventures and big dreams are exposed as hollow even as he’s sounding off about them. While he’s certainly a capable actor, Stan seems to be trying on the part for size rather than fully owning Hal’s wildness and primitive hunger.

As Madge, the peaches-and-cream blonde on whom Hal fixes his covetous gaze, Maggie Grace is exceptionally lovely. But like Stan, her physical attributes outweigh the depth of her characterization. It’s touching when Madge complains that she wants to be noticed for something besides her looks, envying her brainy tomboy kid sister Millie (Madeleine Martin, a tad cartoonish). But even when Hal unleashes the real woman inside the doll, the truth is that there’s not a whole lot else going on. Perhaps it’s Gold’s interpretation of the play that both Madge and Hal have a fatalistic grasp of their limitations.

While the production keeps the sensuality on a medium flame, the delicate textures brought to some of the secondary characters work well.

Mare Winningham is affecting as Madge and Millie’s watchful mother, Flo. “A pretty girl doesn’t have long -- just a few years,” she warns Madge with blunt pragmatism. “Next summer you’ll be 19, and then 20, and then 21 and then 40.” Flo urges her daughter to work on hooking her wealthy summer beau, Alan (Ben Rappaport), at the Labor Day picnic, determined that she should get a foot in the country club door. Flo’s aspirations, however, are not those of a climber. She’s a pensive woman who presumably missed her own window, got entangled with the wrong man and now watches anxiously as Madge looks set to repeat the pattern.

A similar shadow of regret is etched beneath the warmth and cheer of Burstyn’s Helen. Unlike Flo, the fluttery neighbor can still enjoy the idea of romance, even if it’s far removed from the reality of an unfulfilled life spent taking care of her demanding mother. A scene between Burstyn and Winningham near the end is exquisite.

The production’s most memorable performance is also in some aspects a little questionable. As the self-described “old-maid schoolteacher,” Rosemary, Elizabeth Marvel is a hoot. However, she pushes the comic-relief duties to the point of caricature, her judgmental prudery giving way to raucousness and then bitterness after a swig or two of bootleg whiskey. But Marvel plays Rosemary’s desperate reckoning after the picnic with raw anguish, reaching an emotional intensity that’s too seldom matched elsewhere. When she abandons all dignity and pleads with dullish shopkeeper Howard (Reed Birney) to marry her, she’s making a humbling confession that she knows he’s her last chance. The alternative of continuing to live in a rented room and dress up for lunches with her simpering fellow teachers (amusingly played by Maddie Corman and Cassie Beck) is unendurable.

Birney brings intelligent restraint and an intriguing hint of something darker to his characterization, shooting hypnotized glances at Madge before being goaded into a marriage with scant hope of contentment.

Despite producing four popular and critical successes in the 1950s, Inge’s work has proven less durable than that of some of his contemporaries. His plays lack the thematic expansiveness of Arthur Miller, or the sad poetry of Tennessee Williams. But as a snapshot of a time and place that shows the solitude of small-town life for so many people, women especially, Picnic yields gentle rewards. And if Gold’s staging muffles some of them, it nonetheless finds resonance in the play’s bruised cynicism about love.

Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 24)

Cast: Maggie Grace, Sebastian Stan, Ellen Burstyn, Reed Birney, Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, Madeleine Martin, Ben Rappaport, Cassie Beck, Maddie Corman, Lizbeth Mackay, Chris Perfetti

Director: Sam Gold

Playwright: William Inge

Set designer: Andrew Lieberman

Costume designer: David Zinn

Lighting designer: Jane Cox

Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff

Choreography: Chase Brock

Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, in association with Darren Bagert, Martin Massman