By William Inge
Director/Costume Design by Bruce R. Coleman
Scenic Design by Michelle Harvey
Lighting Design by Suzanne Lavender
Sound Design by Marco Salinas
Properties by Monika Zimmerman
Hal Carter – Haulston Mann
Madge Owens – Grace Montie
Flo Owens – Stephanie Dunnam
Millie Owens – Maya Pearson
Rosemary Sydney – Amber Devlin
Howard Bevans – David Benn
Alan Seymour – John Ruegsegger
Irma Kronkite – Lisa Anne Haram
Christine Schoenwalder – Cheryl Lowber
Helen Potts – Georgia Clinton
Bomber – Edward Treminio
Reviewed Performance: 11/1/2015
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“…tell your pretty sister to come out. It’s no fun looking at you!”
“Madge, a pretty girl doesn’t have long – just a few years when she’s the equal of kings...”
“Well, you’re the most beautiful girl in town, aren’t you?”
Although there are lots and lots of talk about being pretty, and both lead characters are objectified for their physical appearance, this play is mainly about, yep, sex! Sex as a weapon, sex as a savior and sex as a destroyer. A handsome young drifter comes into the shared back yard of two women in small town Kansas, removes his shirt, and the worlds of all of them will never be the same.
Madge: What good is it to be pretty?
Flo: Well, pretty things, like flowers and sunsets and rubies – and pretty girls too – they’re like billboards telling us that life is good.
The play premiered at the Music Box Theatre in New York on February 19th, 1953 directed by Joshua Logan and ran for 477 performances. The 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to Inge, and Logan received a Tony Award for Best Director. The play also won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the season. Paul Newman made his Broadway debut as an unknown actor in the role of Alan Seymour and was understudy for the role of Hal, eventually taking over the lead role. Made into a movie in 1955, the play has gone on to become a standard of the American Theater canon. (See the excellent article by dramaturg Dr. Brandi Andrade in the program about Inge and the play.)
Steeped in the early 1950’s period in which it was written, Picnic takes on “the repression of small-town life and the straitjacket of conventions and the power and limits of physical beauty,” says Joe Dziemianowicz in his review of the 2013 revival for the New York Daily News.
Ben Brantley, in The New York Times, reviewing the same production, says, “…everyone in Picnic wants to be attractive, and (we discover) how much talk there is among even the minor characters of transformative beauty products and new clothes.”
Theatre Three’s production is not only pretty to look at but the acting shines, with strong performances across the board. In the role of Hal Carter, whose arrival is the “inciting incident,” Haulston Mann is ripped and abbed to a fare-thee-well, making all the women’s reactions entirely believable, although in the early ‘50’s, few men were that concerned about being such perfect specimens. (See William Holden in the movie version of “Picnic” and James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” as examples.) Never mind the history, Mr. Mann’s body works for this production and fortunately, this actor is more than his biceps, showing a wide range of emotion and reactions. Cocky and brassy at first, he later shows us his vulnerable side in an unexpectedly touching scene in which, alone, he collapses on stage in tears. He moves and speaks confidently as he presents the exterior the character has perfected to deal with the world. When the time comes to declare his love, his sincere delivery makes us believe him. A minor quibble from the final preview performance is that he might choose to show less of the crass aspects and more of the smitten side of his character in his dance with Madge. The chemistry is there, but we don’t quite get that “moment” when they make the true connection that determines the outcome of the show.
Grace Montie is Madge Owens, the town beauty, the object of everyone’s affection and lust. Ms. Montie is certainly lovely enough to make us believe all the reactions and, as in Mr. Mann’s performance, her acting ability is certainly not limited to a pretty face and body. Madge may have not been the most intelligent in high school or have the most ambition, but Ms. Montie manages to reveal levels in the character that keep her from becoming the “dumb blonde.” Ms. Montie truly listens and reacts and her interplay with the other actors is spot-on. Her reactions to Allen, the young man who is the perfect match in her mother’s eyes is nicely complex. The growing attraction to the wild and untamed Hal, the one who like her, seems to hear the train’s whistle as an invitation to other lives, is neatly calibrated and believable.
Amber Devlin is Rosemary Sydney, the “old maid schoolteacher” latching on to every last moment of her rapidly retreating looks and life. Mrs. Devlin is superb in a multi-leveled, nuanced performance. The role is an actor’s dream in the arc that is available to be played, and Mrs. Devlin doesn’t miss a beat. She’s tough and cynical, funny and brassy and finally devastatingly heartrending pleading with Howard to marry her. This is an assured, polished and confident portrayal. Her looks at Hal when he appears speak volumes and her big scene when, drunk, she forces him to dance with her and then attacks him is carefully crafted to create a totally believable moment that in less skilled hands might be simply melodramatic. Isadora Duncan once said, “Before I go on stage, I have to put a motor in my soul.” Mrs. Devlin has found her motor and she is using it to create a Rosemary you won’t soon forget.
As Flo, Madge and Millie’s mother, Stephanie Dunnam brings a solid, lived-in character to full life. You can tell by her movements and reactions that she is perfectly at home in this space. This is her home and these are her children. Her relationship with her neighbor is warm and believably lived-in. She makes her advice to her daughter to marry Allen, the rich guy, the one who’s going places and is a solid respectable choice, fully understandable by her no-nonsense delivery and her loving concern, evident in her looks and body language. This is a character who has been hurt in the past and is clearly not going to let the same thing happen to her daughter if she can help it. Ms. Dunnam gives a wonderfully rounded, fully fleshed-out characterization.
Tomboy Millie, Madge’s younger sister, is honestly and completely inhabited by the strong and true performance of Maya Pearson. That Miss Pearson is only fifteen years old is astounding. Her confident and fully professional performance more than holds its own with the far more experienced members of the cast. Her portrayal is layered and constantly reveals depths of Millie’s character that delight and intrigue us. Her interplay with Madge seems natural and sister-like and her reactions to Bomber, Allen and Hal, all different and all appropriate. A really fine performance that is a delight to watch.
Mrs. Potts is Georgia Clinton, bringing her deep well of experience and her warm stage presence to the role of the neighbor who gives Hal a job and seems happy to see the stirring up of the neighborhood he brings to her otherwise mundane life. She’s strong and confident, sure of whom this woman is and she too reveals levels beyond the obvious.
John Ruegsegger is Alan Seymour, the “good guy,” the one Madge should be marrying. Mr. Ruegsegger brings the physical appeal of the all-American 50’s heartthrob without being stiff or one-dimensional. He manages to show a very human side in his scenes with Hal, his looks and physical proximity and his warm tone assure us of his affection for Madge, and his easy way with Millie makes him someone we like and want to identify with. When he is passed over for “bad boy” Hal, a part of us feels sorry for his loss and understand his calling the police to report a stolen car. Mr. Ruegsegger plays the situations with conviction, giving us a real person, not just a plot pawn.
Howard Bevans, Rosemary’s beau, is played by David Benn in a loose-jointed, easy, likeable manner that makes us pull for him. That he isn’t as interested in marriage as she is doesn’t make him necessarily less likeable, because Mr. Benn’s behavior is specific enough to fill in the gaps and create a person of many dimensions. His big scene with Rosemary, when she pleads with him to marry her, is played on multiple levels at once, making us see all the many emotions and conflicts raging in Howard’s person. Another strong, confident performance in this production.
Edward Tremimio as Bomber, the paper boy, Lisa Anne Haram as Irma Kronkite and Cheryl Lowber as Christine Schoenwalder, fellow schoolteachers with Rosemary, all bring a marvelous energy and stage presence to their performances. Their scenes burst with excitement and forward motion, keeping the action on point and moving. What could be throw away roles become interesting and integral parts of the story because of their individual skills.
Scenic design by Michelle Harvey is wonderfully realistic in its depiction of the back porches of two houses that share a back yard. The Owens house is painted green, a somewhat unusual color for stage scenery, but neatly appropriate in this context. The details of trim and grass, weeds or longer grass around the tree trunks and the careful painting make a perfect environment for the story. Properties by Monika Zimmerman help set the ‘50’s time period and warm, atmospheric lighting by Suzanne Lavender that subtly changes to highlight specific moments and the sound design of Marco Salinas with its lonely, calling train whistle, all combine to create a world that the characters inhabit naturally and fully.
Bruce Coleman’s direction is, as ever, precise and skilled, giving us focus where it belongs and guiding us through the story with clear beats and moments, the characterizations assured and confident and the balance carefully calibrated to serve the story being told. His costumes are bright and colorful and aid the actors in creating their characters without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves.
Picnic is set in the 1950’s and reflects that period with its depiction of women’s roles as opposed to men’s, the “every girl longs for a fling with a bad boy” trope, the need of a woman to be taken care of by a man and other earmarks of the period. We are perhaps torn between wanting Madge to be happy and follow her heart, and knowing that her mother’s final admonition that Hal will turn out to be a no-good drinker and womanizer, is probably true, but hearing the neighbor’s advice that we have to allow those we love to learn from their own mistakes, no matter how much we may want to protect them. There are no easy answers in this particular story. Will Rosemary and Howard ride off blissfully into the sunset? Probably not.
Picnic is an old fashioned good story with characters we care about and are interested in, told in a linear fashion with a clear beginning, middle and end, wonderfully done and entertaining. Under the deft and sure direction of Bruce Coleman, Theatre Three has given Dallas a tight, sexy, polished production of Mr. Inge’s Broadway hit.
Theatre Three, 2800 Routh Street, Ste #168, Dallas, TX
Runs through November 22nd, 2015
Ticket prices range from $25.00 to $50.00
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Friday and Saturdays at 8:00pm
Sundays at 2:30pm and 7:30pm
Tickets and additional information at www.theatre3dallas.com or 214-871-3300, option #1