William Inge is one of those mid-20th century American playwrights who started late (he was 30 when his first play, Come Back, Little Sheba arrived on Broadway). It was a success, and ultimately was turned into a movie starring the same Shirley Booth who, after twenty years as a supporting player, became a genuine star in the role of Lola Delaney.
Proving he was no one shot writer, Inge delivered Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs to Broadway during the remainder of the ’50s and made a smashing transition to film with the screenplay of “Splendor in the Grass” in 1961.
Then he tumbled, and was never again able to climb Mount Fame again, putting an end to his life with carbon monoxide poison in 1973 when he was just 60. He was proud of all his plays, and it bitterly disappointed him that the press and public simply tired of his form of eloquence.
Major playwrights like Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, his contemporaries and/or peers, all had valleys following their early peaks, but all of them continued to write, and in most cases did some of their best work long after the magic of their early successes had faded.
Picnic earned Inge a coveted Pulitzer Prize but he never fully enjoyed the accolades, never believed he was a major anything. His early life as a “Mama’s boy”, and the dreariness of his youth in Kansas and later in St. Louis as drama critic, enabled him to write with insight and compassion of the “little people” who made up his world.
Perhaps he was somewhat ignored in later life because the characters with which he populated his four most successful plays were blue collar folk, many of them lonely and adrift. You won’t find an Alexandre del Lago or a Maggie the Cat in any of them.
There is a young man in Picnic, a drifter named Hal Carter, but he doesn’t have Stanley Kowalski’s savage center, and no one he runs into in the quiet town with the town picnic the big event of the summer has seen or felt much in their empty lives. Everyone seems to be yearning for something, and when Carter’s young stud arrives looking for his college roommate, an upstanding youth named Alan Seymour, Carter acts as catalyst, creating havoc in this place where a storm felled tree is about it for excitement, where an unwed mother would be so out of tune with the time and place in which she lived, she’d have to move out, and fast.
Madge Owens and her sister Millie, 18 and 15, are both about to emerge into whom they will become. Madge is the town beauty, with soft blonde hair, innocent blue eyes, and a toned body that moves with ease and grace. She’s about to protect all that, with her mother’s encouragement, by marrying the most eligible bachelor in town, Alan Seymour, a local lad she’s known for years.
All is going as planned as the play begins. Living with these young ladies and their mother is a paying guest, Rosemary Sydney, one of the local school teachers whose one last chance to get the wedding ring she’s always wanted is a local merchant called Howard Bevans, a bachelor of 50 who enjoys her company and her favors now and then, but is clearly not in any hurry to offer that ring. Everyone is living with what is; they’re not liking it much, but they’ve all pretty much resigned themselves to facing their fates and making the best of a bad job. Until Hal Carter arrives.
A drifter, he has no money, and is happy to be handy man to Mrs. Potts, who lives next door to Mrs. Owens and her daughters. He’s hoping his old college buddy will find him a job so he can at last begin to put some stability in his life.
Inge knows about life’s disappointments. He knows his friends and neighbors from the Kansas flatlands in which he grew up, frustrated and disappointed himself. After teaching for three years, he was encouraged to write by Tennessee Williams no less, who read an early short play of his. Williams took him to Audrey Wood, his agent and mentor, and with her usual nose, ear and eye for talent, she took him on as a client, and helped him develop his first play, Come Back, Little Sheba. She greatly furthered his career by convincing the management of the Westport Country Playhouse to give it a tryout in the summer of 1949, and by using her influence to get the play to Shirley Booth who knew of Ms. Wood’s ability to spot good material. Westport ate it up, it moved to Broadway, and it firmly established Inge with its 191 performance run. In the early fifties, that spelled “hit.”
The Roundabout Theatre Company is now giving us a first class look at Inge’s next play, his master work, Picnic, with a cast of stellar talent, but no movie star names, playing it for real. The three youngsters who are at the center of the play – Madge, Hal and Alan – are brilliantly etched by 3 on their way to stardom. Maggie Grace is lithe and lovely as Madge, Sebastian Stan brings animal magnetism and some humor to Hal, and as Alan, the role that launched Paul Newman’s career 60 years ago (!), Ben Rappaport is clearly enchanted by his girl’s beauty, but a wise eye would see that he and she might well have problems down the road.
It’s also crystal clear that the moment Madge sets eyes on Hal, and he on her, their destinies are tied, much as are Romeo and Juliet’s. No one will die because of a botched message in this one, but the ending that Inge has chosen (my lips are sealed) leaves lots for an audience to discuss on the way home from the theatre.
In the course of a three act evening, there is time to explore the relationship between the paying guest, Rosemary, the “old maid school teacher”. She calls herself that, knowing that if she didn’t, someone else would. We see the brave Rosemary, off to the first day of a new school season with her chums, two other teachers, Rosemary full of high jinx, the life of the party.
On the night of the town picnic, we see another side of her. Elizabeth Marvel’s Rosemary is a complicated and very moving character, and we root for her all the way. But her desperation is clear, so we also feel for Howard Bevans because Reed Birney inhabits him, and he has found a dozen ways to show us his joys, his sorrows, and everything in between. He is being pressured to tie the knot, and it’s to Mr. Birney’s credit, and to William Inge and director Sam Gold, that these people come alive before us, involve us, and gain great empathy with their excellent work. Strong support comes from Maddie Corman and Cassie Beck as two of Rosemary’s gal pals. They are all a bit much, but a very welcome contrast to the tightly corseted lives of the others.
I think you’ll agree that although the language and the attitudes are firmly set in the time and place of the play, don’t think of this as some dusty old relic taken down from the shelf. The emotions that erupt on stage are universal and eternal, and the only dust up there is the dust that flies all around the flatland earth.
Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Picnic is at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, 10036. Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, who, in his more than 60 year career on Broadway as a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has recently written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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