Theatre Review: ‘Picnic’ at Stage Door Players

Shannon McCarren and Blake Burgess (Photos by Todd Fleeman)

Stage Door Players is presenting William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Picnic,” running through Feb. 18, directed by Tess Malis Kincaid.

There was a time, in the 1950’s, when Inge was almost as revered as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Ms. Kincaid writes in program notes of the “good old days” and the “wholesome, booming” 50’s. These were the Eisenhower years, you may recall, and life in the heartland (in “Picnic,” Kansas) was often thought of as idyllic.

There was, of course, another side to this fantasy: This was also the time when people were building bomb shelters to protect themselves as the reality of the nuclear age set in; and the sexual revolution of the 1960’s was simmering, hiding in nascent form, peeping out from time to time, often to the consternation of the upright, God-fearing citizens of the heartland.

William Inge was acutely aware of this burgeoning revolution, and it always pops up, in one way or another, in his four big successes of the 50’s: “Come Back, Little Sheba”; “Picnic,” “Bus Stop,” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.” He would go on to write Oscar-winning screenplay for “Splendor in the Grass” starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.

Today Inge is not regarded as highly as Williams or Miller; his work can seem a bit dated and his themes too obvious. This is true with “Picnic”; but when you have top notch actors and direction, as we do in Stage Door’s production, his work can still be moving and even funny.

Inge had a special empathy for women, who too often saw themselves as failures, especially if they had not “married well.” Even as a boy in his mother’s boardinghouse, “I began to sense the sorrow and emptiness in their lives, and it touched me.”

Flo Owens (Vickie Ellis Gray) lives in a house with her two daughters, Madge (Shannon McCarren) and Millie (Shelby Folks). “Madge is the pretty one,” as the smart and spunky Millie is wont to say. Actually both girls are interesting, full of life, and yearning, as are many of Inge’s characters.

Their next door neighbor Helen (Kara Cantrell), who looks after her invalid mother, has found a visiting young man named Hal (Blake Burgess) to do odd jobs for her. Hal is the personification of that simmering sexuality we referred to earlier; he’s attractive, magnetic, and well-built and tends to discombobulate almost everyone he meets. He spends at least half the evening with his shirt off; he is definitely the rooster in the hen house.

Helen happily flutters about him and thinks he’s just dandy; she also thinks he’d be the perfect person to escort Millie to the upcoming Labor Day picnic. Flo, however, doesn’t trust him; and she’s very upset to see that Hal and Madge have an instant attraction to each other. You see, Hal is from the wrong side of the tracks; and Flo very much wants Madge to marry Alan (JD Myers), a well-to-do young man with whom Hal spent some time in college (small world—and Hal didn’t finish college).

Meanwhile, Rosemary (Rachel Frawley) a self-confessed “old maid schoolteacher” and boarder with Flo, desperately wants Howard (Larry Davis) to marry her. In the play’s single most pathetic and creepy scene, Rosemary both threatens and begs Howard to take her away. Tennessee Williams said that Inge’s plays always had one dark scene which was the most powerful in the play. This would be it.

Jealousy, desperation, loneliness, and passion—they all throb beneath the surface in“Picnic”; sometimes they take over.

Ms. Kincaid has made excellent choices for her cast. Mr. Burgess, for example, handles a tricky role very well indeed; he shows that one’s humanity is much more complicated and vulnerable than one’s physique. Everyone I’ve mentioned is excellent; Ms. Frawley triumphs in her “dark scene.”

Also in the cast is Jonathan Wierenga, Liane LeMaster, and Suzanne Roush. They all shine.
I’m glad that Stage Door is letting William Inge have another moment in the sun.

For tickets and information, visit stagedoorplayers.net.

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