Monday, February 4, 2013

theatre review PICNIC, Broadway, Jan 26

A revival of a classic Pulitzer Prize winning play would seemingly be something easy to pull off.  However, when dealing with a play like William Inge's Picnic, that centers on a couple of key events over a 24 hour period in 1950's Kansas, the casting is central to ensure that the somewhat nostalgic and ordinary goings on are handled expertly and that the turn of events don't come across as too melodramatic for a 21st century audience.  The good news is the casting of the three main females, who are all strong willed women determined to make it on their own, couldn't be better, the somewhat bad news is in the casting of the male lead, the muscular drifter who stirs things up, which doesn't exactly hit a home run.

Set on Labor Day in the shared backyard of two houses in a small town in Kansas and taking place mainly on the back porches of those two houses, Picnic centers on normal, simple characters.  Set in a more simple time, these are the kind of people who go about their normal daily activities and get excited about a new dress or the Labor Day picnic.  So, basically characters that are just like the average theatre goer and situations we can all identify with, so the characters and events of the play are easily relatable.

Mare Winningham, Madeleine Martin and Maggie Grace
Flo Owens is a single mother raising her two teenage daughters, Madge and Millie.  Flo lives next door to Helen Potts who cares for her home bound elderly mother.  Flo also rents a room in her house out to Rosemary, a schoolteacher in town who often refers to herself as "an old maid."   Flo, Helen and Rosemary are women who have to make it on their own with no men around in their lives.  However, one Labor Day Helen hires a young man named Hal to do some work around her house in exchange for breakfast.  Hal is an old college friend of Madge's boyfriend Alan and has the physique and charisma to turn the heads of all of the women who live in the two houses.  The impact of Hal's arrival on these two houses and the women who reside in them and what transpires over the next 24 hours is the entire context of Picnic

Sebastian Stan
While it may seem like not much really happens during the majority of the play, except for the arrival of Hal and the growing attraction between him and Madge and how that plays out, there is actually a lot that happens in this 24 hour period.  Almost all of the characters go through major changes over the course of this one single day, which is a major compliment to Inge and his ability to not only write complex characters but also to have them all end up in a different place then when they began. 

Flo, Rosemary and Helen are all strong and dominant women, forced it seems into taking on these typical male characteristics of the 1950's since all three of them don't have husbands to shoulder the burdens of raising children or dealing with the male oriented daily chores that were generally set aside for the man of the house to handle.

As those three strong and determined women,  Mare Winningham, Ellen Burstyn and Elizabeth Marvel are nothing short of spectacular.  They are three very different women but each of the actresses has found a way to clearly not only get across the strength that each of them has but also their weaknesses as well.  Winningham has the more simple role, that of a mother who rarely raises her voice and only wants the best for her two daughters.  Winningham exhibits such strength and determination, and yes even fear, in her portrayal of a woman forced to deal with the changing times while trying to hold things together.

Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel

Elizabeth Marvel as Rosemary is the woman who at first glance has it all, she has no responsibilities beyond her job and frequently talks about being able to do whatever she wants because she is an "old maid."   Marvel originated the role of the daughter of Stockard Channing and Stacey Keach off Broadway in Other Desert Cities and I thought she was just ok in that part, always being too intense and not having the right amount of balance for a woman who had suffered from depression.  However, as Rosemary she is astonishing and is completely in control of a character who is also at a crossroads in her life.  When it quickly becomes apparent that she isn't getting any younger she finds herself to be a very desperate woman.  Marvel expertly gets across the nuance of this woman and the fear and desperation that is slowly burning under the facade she puts on.

Ellen Burstyn, Ben Rappaport and Maggie Grace
While Burstyn has the least to do of these three characters, she has still found a way  to portray the feistiness of the role, the pain of dealing with an elderly parent and also as well as the simple joy she has for life.  Sebastian Stan is Hal, and while he has the physique and stamina for the part, I'm not certain if it is the direction from Sam Gold or a lack of natural charisma from Stan, but there is something missing from his performance.  I'm not sure if it is that he is just too soft instead of simply having a softer side or if it is that he isn't as confident as his character should be.

Maggie Grace and Madeleine Martin are winning as Flo's two daughters Madge and Millie.  While they are basically complete opposites with Grace's Madge being beautiful and Martin's Millie being tom-boy handsome, the two come across as sisters who get on each other's nerves but also look out for each other's best interests.  Grace is quiet and reserved, and quiet effectively shows us the somewhat naive pretty girl who just wants to be loved, but not sure who is the right person for her.  Martin joyously gets across the rambunctious and carefree spirit of Mille but also clearly shows how concerned she is about what other's think of her.  Reed Birney is Howard, Rosemary's boyfriend and the scenes the two of them have together are pretty special.

Technical credits are sublime for the production with a lovely set design by Andrew Lieberman and perfect period specific costumes from David Zinn.  While Jane Cox's lighting is fairly bright and constant throughout she does manage to compose some lovely set pictures with her lighting for both the evening of the picnic and the early morning the day after.

It is interesting in seeing a play like Picnic that is set in the same year that it first appeared on Broadway, as today there is an added nostalgic element in viewing the play and not only seeing the way people lived sixty years ago but also having a clearer understanding of what obstacles they were faced with.  With such a wonderful cast and lovely technical designs, this production of Picnic just misses being as sublime as it could be.

Picnic runs through February 24th.

Official Show Site

Clips from this production:

No comments:

Post a Comment