Director Will Davis has said he’s been ruminating on William Inge’s 1954 tale of small-town sexual repression for as long as seven years before bringing it to life at American Theater Company, where he’s in his first season as artistic director. As finally realized, Davis’s staging is brimming with ideas. But some of these numerous metaphors may have meaning in Davis’s mind that doesn’t make it all the way to the audience.
Davis’s most radical move, on paper, is his casting. The role of Hal, the handsome, virile young drifter who captivates the attentions of a Midwestern town one Labor Day, goes to Molly Brennan, a queen of punk-rock clowning, while town beauty Madge and her bookish sister Millie are played by trans-identified actors Malic White and Alexia Jasmene, respectively, among other gender– and race-conscious casting.
Thus we’re forced into seeing these characters from new perspectives—those of us who are familiar with the traditional Picnic, that is, and it’s tough to say how many of us that is in 2017. Still, there are moments when this revamped casting packs a real punch, most notably in Michael Turrentine’s portrayal of old-maid schoolmarm Rosemary.
Though she provides mostly busybody comic relief in the play’s early going, two late scenes prove this Picnic’s most powerful: when Rosemary drunkenly blows up at Hal for his invasive, insulting youth and beauty, and when she demands that her longtime boyfriend Howard (Robert Cornelius) ask her to marry him: “What do I care what people think!” Turrentine plays this latter scene with little layered onto it but desperate conviction, but seeing this mid-century scene between ostensibly white, heterosexual characters played out by two African-American men peels back new layers of Inge’s repressed desires just as Davis has indicated was his intention. Fascinating weirdo Laura McKenzie’s portrayal of a half-dozen or so minor townspeople, which she voices into an echoey mic off the edge of the stage, is also intriguing if somewhat inscrutable.
Elsewhere, though, Davis’s production seems to run off track. Brennan can perform persuasive swagger, as those who’ve seen her performances as her own creation Madam Barker or with her former physical-theater troupe 500 Clown can attest. But here, Brennan’s Hal comes across less as sex magnet than goofy kid; he’s less Tab Hunter, more Tom Sawyer. White, similarly, brings a strikingly different look than the traditional Madge, but they don’t convey much of the magnetism that would have the whole town infatuated. You wonder if Davis hoped the fact that Brennan and White are partners in real life would do some impossible work onstage. And the visual metaphors that Davis homes in on and underlines—employing the whole ensemble to endlessly fold and unfold laundry, or a stylized sequence in which everyone frosts a cake—are more portent than potent. While intermittently enlightening, this Picnic isn’t a completely satisfying meal.
American Theater Company. By William Inge. Directed by Will Davis. With ensemble cast. 1hr 40mins; no intermission.