Playwright William Inge almost rained on his own “Picnic.” In the original draft of the 1953 play, Mr. Inge insisted on an unhappy ending in which not only did the two romantic couples not end up together, but one woman resigned herself to vinegary spinsterhood and the other woman remained trapped in a small town with a bad reputation and no future beyond working at the dime store.
Grim business, indeed.
The cooler — and more commercial — head of Broadway producer Josh Logan prevailed, and “Picnic” acquired a more upbeat denouement. The resulting version was a huge box-office success, collected numerous awards and spawned a hit 1955 movie adaptation (starring Kim Novak and William Holden) that won two Oscars.
This summery classic is receiving a punchy, imaginative staging at Center Stage under the guidance of director Irene Lewis. “Picnic” may end on a hopeful note, but there is a lingering sense that the two unions will not be entirely happy ever after. This realism lends poignancy to a play that easily could have drowned in 1950s heartland sentimentality and facile optimism.
Instead, “Picnic” captures both the sunny “can-do” attitude of the ‘50s and an acute sense of what it was like to be different in a small town in Kansas where conformity was crucial to survival. You either fit in or got out.
The action of “Picnic” is confined to the shared back yard of two houses populated by women as the play’s central event, a Labor Day picnic, occurs offstage. Scenic designer Scott Bradley evokes the beauty — and yawning loneliness — of the Kansas prairie with a cool blue-and-green set that features a tilted, towering farmhouse porch, a place that shelters and confines. The period feel is enhanced by scene changes during which the various characters perform exuberant ‘50s dances, dancing as if nobody’s watching.
The Owens household is presided over by Flo (Linda Gehringer), a worn-out housewife. Although Flo retains vestiges of her youthful good looks, struggling to make ends meet has turned her into a craven pragmatist. Flo pins her hopes on her “pretty” daughter Madge (Anne Bowles), strong-arming her into snaring the local rich boy, Alan Seymour (Saxon Palmer). Her “smart” daughter, Millie, is gaily portrayed by Kristen Sieh as a tumbling tomboy, a rock-‘n’-rolling bookworm who can’t wait to get out of high school and on the first train to New York.
Across the way lives Helen Potts (Tana Hicken), a cheerful eccentric who feeds off the energy of the young people around her. Everyone’s carefully scripted life is shaken up when Hal Carter (Leo Kittay) saunters into the back yard. Hal is almost ridiculously handsome and masculine, effortlessly seductive, and his presence throws an estrogen halo over both houses.
He makes women quiver and men get territorial and jealous.
Hal stirs a grand passion in Madge, and they are a perfect match — both are beauties who know they are not too bright. Their heat is tangible as they come together in a dance — the teasing, casual way he pulls on Madge’s sundress straps to draw her near hints at his sexual confidence and her melting. Mr. Kittay is so magnetic and physical as Hal you imagine he could have been the ideal Stanley Kowalski to Patricia Clarkson’s Blanche in the production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Kennedy Center.
Hal also sends Millie into her first crush, and the wounded look on her face as she watches her sister dance with Hal is searingly familiar to anyone who has ever been rejected. Hal also has an unexpected effect on Rosemary (Kristine Nielsen), a colorful, self-sufficient “spinster schoolteacher” who underneath it all is afraid of being alone. He spurs her into a tipsy, desperate showdown with her noncommittal boyfriend (Kevin McClarnon). When Miss McClarnon sinks slowly to her knees, her ‘50s-style poofy dress puddling around her as she whispers “please,” you are awestruck by her determination and her sadness.
The characters in “Picnic” are formulaic — the brawny outsider, the forlorn schoolmarm, the town beauty, the disappointed middle-aged housewives — but the sharply drawn acting and Miss Lewis’ extraordinary ability to let us in on the characters’ inner lives take us beyond the pastel-colored peppiness of the era into something rich in shadow and light. This is a revival in the best sense, revealing Mr. Inge’s solid craftsmanship and his affinity for outsider characters while making the play a swift, directly emotional experience for a new audience.
WHAT: “Picnic” by William Inge
WHERE: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 20
TICKETS: $25 to $55