Monday, April 20, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Picnic"

In the 1950s, William Inge was one of the most highly regarded American playwrights with a string of Broadway hits (Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; The Dark at the Top of the Stairs) which not only garnered Oscars and a Pulitzer, but were also made into popular award-winning films.

These well-written plays evoked a middle-America with quintessentially conservative values that had certain rules of behavior that were largely unquestioned, but were soon thereafter seen as outdated. Inge's popularity faded, and he was overshadowed by his contemporaries, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. -- Today, however, his hometown of Independence, Kansas hosts its annual "William Inge Theatre Festival", helping to secure his stature in American theatre.

The Wetumpka Depot Players are currently reviving a production of Picnic (first performed at the Depot in 1992, after having achieved immense popularity from the film version starring Kim Novak, William Holden, and Rosalind Russell). Under Tom Salter's sensitive direction, River Region theatregoers are transported to a 1953 late Summer in a small Kansas town whose Labor Day picnic is the most anticipated event of the year, and whose ordinary citizens are easily recognizable.

The action takes place in the adjoining back yards of Mrs. Owens [Kim Mason] and Mrs. Potts [Cheryl Pointer Jones] as preparations are underway for the picnic, and where pretty much everyone has a dream to fulfill.

Mrs. Owens lives vicariously through her two daughters -- Millie [Ashlee Lassiter], an awkward tomboy eager to learn as much as she can, and Madge [Jennifer L. Haberkorn], the pretty one who is tired of the burden of beauty. Each one want to break out of their stereotypical roles, and Madge's wealthy boyfriend Alan [Jay Russell] seems to be an ideal match for her.

Rosemary Sydney [Kristy Meanor] is a spinster schoolteacher who boards with Mrs. Owens and wants desperately to marry her long-time boyfriend Howard Bevans [Lee Bridges], a set-in-his-ways businessman who seems to be afraid of commitment.

When, at the beginning of the play, Mrs. Potts hires handsome stranger Hal [Jerry S. Cappadona] to do some odd jobs at her house, all the women's eyes turn to him with varying degrees of admiration: the mysterious good-looking outsider with a ready smile and disarming demeanor. -- While Mrs. Owens views Hal with suspicion and mistrust, the others (especially Madge) are captivated; when it is disclosed that Alan and Hal were fraternity brothers, and Alan vouches for him, Mrs.Owens' misgivings are eased a little.

Mr. Cappadona's presence is felt even when he is offstage. We wonder if his bragging is truthful or a mere deception. But there is little doubt that Hal's presence has made a difference in everyone's life. His date for the picnic with Millie is doomed when drinking makes people tipsy or sick or uninhibited; and it becomes clearer by the  minute that Madge falls for him.

Ms. Meanor and Mr. Bridges give two remarkable performances as Rosemary and Howard; their true to life confrontation that eventually results in a marriage proposal is both touching and passionate. -- Ms. Mason's depiction of a caring mother who suffocates her children is credible throughout. And the magical chemistry that grows between Ms. Haberkorn and Mr. Cappadona grows from denial to trepidation to complete commitment.

All this allows Inge to explore various themes that resonate today, outside the 1950s setting: unrealistic dreams don't always get resolved the way we want -- in fact, we often have to "make the best out of the hand we're dealt"; social rules may provide a sense of security, but breaking them is often necessary for personal growth and understanding; appearances don't always provide accurate assessments; being pretty can be a curse. -- And the Depot's production of Picnic delivers on all accounts.