Picnic is a huge delicious ice cream of a fantasy you don’t even have to feel guilty about giving in to it because it comes in the guise of hard bitten realism. I loved it.
The action takes place in a small town in the midwest in and around the houses of Flo Owens and Helen Potts and the yard between them. The set, always on view, is so familiar and warmly lit, from the worn white wood frame houses with enticing glimpses through the windows to the appealingly familiar junk around, that one can hardly wait for the play to begin. The play doesn’t disappoint.
Into this tight little corner of Kansas, where several women of of a range of ages happen to be living, comes a stunningly handsome, aggressively virile young man, Hal, a drifter taken in by Mrs. Potts who, according to the more prim Flo, has offered hospitality in exchange for odd jobs to too many wandering guys before. Carrying heavy bushels of wood with his shirt off, Hal electrifies the woman of all ages — it’s amusing, and it has truth.
We know almost immediately that we have to worry about whether Hal, with his run-ins with the law, edgy, self-defeating ways and remarkable abs will or won’t end up with Madge, Flo’s lovely eighteen-year old daughter, his equal in gorgeousness and like him without a college diploma in her future (she’s a salesgirl at the dime store).
Sure we worry — Madge, as beautiful as a girl can be (she was Miss Neewollah, Halloween spelled backward younger sister Millie explains) is courted by Alan, the local rich young man who’s in college, and has an affluent and loved future to offer her. It would be terrible if Hal’s sexual magnetism caused Madge to throw aaside her secure future, even if Alan does seem a little wimpy. Terrible. Tch tch. Only it’s what we ardently hope for throughout the play.
There’s going to be a Labor Day picnic that night and everybody’s excitement is focused on that getting away from the usual — like the picnic on the island in Porgy and Bess where Crown pulls Bess into his sexual orbit, away from Porgy. We fear that trouble will erupt at this picnic, for which Mrs. Potts has baked the pies (the only way an old woman can get noticed is through her pies, she laments, with some satisfaction). And in fact “trouble” does erupt — but not at the picnic. Madge and Hal never make it there. They discover their love, both passionate and profound. And in that, they start on a path to discovering their own womanly and manly selves. Picnic’s not just about sex, after all. They change, they go deeper, which is what makes this so satisfying a play.
Not that all obstacles are past them, however. Not by a long shot. Hal — darn it, Hal! Stay out of trouble! one thinks — has another run-in with the law and has to flee across the river (we reassure ourselves remembering he was West Coast diving champion). But in this tight corner of mothers who have exerted too much inhibiting pressure on their daughters, maturity and independence are at the heart of the play.
Beautiful Madge, as played by Maggie Grace, has a frail delicacy which makes the toughness she finds within all the more powerful: she’s seems to need protection, until she discovers the strength to risk all, through the transformative power of love. Sebastian Stan brings out Hal’s blend of pride, sexual magnetism, and sense of ill-fated outsider.
Elizabeth Marvel is humorous and all-out emotional as the school teacher Rosemary desperate for marriage with the amiable but stuck-in-his ways Howard, played by Reed Birney (they don’t make it to the picnic either). Ellen Burstyn is amusing as Mrs. Helen Potts (she keeps that remnant of a brief, passionate marriage — Mrs. — in defiance of her mother). Millie, played by Madeleine Martin, is the more readily independent of the Owens’ daughters, though I wish that the designers of this show hadn’t used “darker” and “shorter” to signify “less beautiful.”
The bringing into the open of all of the women’s strong sexuality, with Hal the catalyst for revelation, must have been electrifying in the conservative 1950’s when this play was first produced: it remains fresh.
Although large cultural issues of class conflicts, pressures to conform and puritanical narrow mindedness are referred to in Picnic as if they matter, they don’t seem to cast a genuine menace on the little enclave between Mrs. Potts’ and Mrs. Owens’ houses. Picnic never has you too worried. Conflicts arise from characters and, deep down, we know that the characters are going to work it out and that the play will turn out the way we hope.
Picnic tells a story of ordinary people made extraordinarily engaging through the playwright’s crafting of their characters and understanding of their hopes, fears, plans and passions. It’s funny, moving, inspiring, and wrapped in a package of sensual allure.
Picnic plays at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street West of Broadway through February 24th, 2013.