William Inge’s “Picnic” Takes on Timeless Themes

06Apr09

Strong cast featured in Stoneham Theatre production
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The outstanding quality of Stoneham Theatre’s current production of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Picnic,” is largely attributable to skillful casting and the superb performances that bring to life Inge’s memorable characters. The play’s power derives from Inge’s dark exploration of timeless themes, such and judging – and being judged – on the basis of physical beauty.

The setting is a small Kansas town, where everyone is anticipating that evening’s annual town-wide Labor Day picnic. Stunningly pretty 18 year-old Madge Owens (played by Delilah Kistler) lives in a modest house with her mother, Flo (Dee Nelson) and younger sister Millie (Emily Graham-Handley). Rosemary (Sarah Newhouse) is a 40ish, self-described spinster schoolteacher who rents a room in the Owens’ house. Rosemary dates a committed bachelor businessman, Howard (Craig Mathers), when she’s not passing time lunching with her teacher friends.

Rosemary’s schoolteacher colleagues include Irma (played by Wakefield’s own Leigh Barrett) and Christine (Meredith Stypinski). Despite the unmarried teachers’ apparent contentment with dressing up to go out to lunch together, the drabness of their lives is not lost on Madge and Millie.

Madge dates college student Alan Seymour (Ben Sloane), scion of a wealthy father who made his fortune in the oil business. Alan can hardly believe that someone a pretty as Madge would even notice him, and Flo urges her daughter to take advantage of her looks to secure a chance at marrying into the affluent Seymour family.

All of this attention to her looks leaves Madge wondering if beauty is all she has to offer. That anxiety is reinforced by sister Millie’s teasing her about being pretty but dumb. Madge complains to her mother that she is tired of being pretty and says there is no value to being beautiful. She dreams of being more than just an object of beauty.
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Meanwhile, next door neighbor Mrs. Potts (Lisa Foley) is stuck at home taking care of her elderly mother. Much to Flo Owens’ chagrin, Mrs. Potts has a habit of hiring unsavory drifters as day-laborers to give her a hand around the house. The latest is a hunky young rapscallion named Hal Carter (played by Aidan Kane), who turns out to be a former college mate of Alan’s. Hal dropped out of school thinking his looks would get him a shot in Hollywood. When that didn’t work out, he showed up in town hoping Alan could use his influence to get him a job in dad’s oil business.

Hal is handsome, cocky and sure of himself, and he loves attention. He is accustomed to taking advantage of his looks to get what he wants, especially when it comes to women. But like Madge, Hal has learned that great looks can be both an asset and a liability.

All the females immediately notice Hal, including Millie and Rosemary – but especially Madge. Rosemary at first flirts with Hal, but then verbally rips him after he doesn’t respond to the older woman’s attentions. Mrs. Potts suggests that Hal should be invited to the town picnic as Millie’s date. But when Hal starts paying closer attention to his friend Alan’s girlfriend Madge as picnic time approaches, the seeds of conflict are sown.
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They say that directing is largely casting, and director Caitlin Lowans has cast a talented group of actors and coaxes fine performances from all of them, with Emily Graham-Handley deserving special mention. Her performance brings a captivating charm to Millie’s character, and she has a way of drawing your attention whenever she’s on stage. With grace and aplomb, she carries off Millie’s transformation from a wild tomboy to a confident young woman with artistic ambitions and goals.

The place and time – a rural town a half century ago – are the only things that date “Picnic.” Its themes of personal discovery and the obsession with physical beauty are timeless and universal. This top-notch professional cast succeeds in bringing out the power of Inge’s classic play in a production that is exceptional, even by the high standards that we’ve come to expect from Stoneham Theatre.

“Picnic,” runs through April 19 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham. For tickets and show times, go online at http://www.stonehamtheatre.org/ or phone 781-279-2200.

[PICNIC, by William Inge. Directed by Caitlin Lowans. Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light. Scenic Design, Charlie Morgan. Costume Design, Seth Bodie. Lighting Design, Christopher Ostrom. Sound Design, Davis Wilson. Featuring Leigh Barrett, Scott Coffey, Lisa Foley, Emily Graham-Handley, Aidan Kane, Delilah Kistler, Craig Mathers, Dee Nelson, Sarah Newhouse, Ben Sloane and Meredith Stypinski.]

(This review originally appeared in the April 6, 2009 Wakefield Daily Item.)

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