Transport Group: Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba
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Picnic: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
It’s astonishing how little in the way of artifice is required to create powerful theater. An artful script helps, and William Inge’s Picnic is an oft-revived neo-classic for good reason: it won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize, after all. In inept hands, it can come across as a cautionary melodrama, but in mounting this barebones revival, director Jack Cummings III has managed to sand the edges off any potential villains. Even so, each ordinary Kansan depicted appears to be grappling with forces on the scale of Greek tragedy.
Nothing prepares the audience for the tumult in store. Dane Laffrey’s set couldn’t be more minimal: A row of 1950s lawn chairs fronts a plain plywood wall with two apertures for doors: one for Flo (reliably grounded Michele Pawk) and her teenage daughters, another for sweet Mrs. Potts (Heather MacCrae) and her unseen invalid mother. That’s all we’re given, aside from some smart period costuming by Άsta Bennie Hostetter and otherworldly interstitial keening, courtesy of Michael John LaChiusa.
Pawk’s Flo comes across as practical, rather than scheming, when she warns her eldest, 18-year-old Madge (Ginna Le Vine, well cast as a stunner), that even she has a sell-by date. Flo wishes Madge would seal the deal with local rich kid Alan (Rowan Vickers, who telegraphs his beta-male status, or perhaps sexual ambivalence, by oddly placing hands on hips).
Into the mix strides Hal (David T. Patterson), a down-on-his-luck dime-store Adonis, who’s hoping to hit up his former frat bud for a job. Madge, poised between the two boys, good and bad, is set on a collision course. And we feel for her, as she begs one person after another—including her younger sister, Millie (spirited Hannah Ellis), a mix of tomboyish gaucherie and intellectual pretention—to look past her apparently perfect surface and see her as “real.”
The passion that flares up between Hal and Madge couldn’t come across as any realer: it’s like watching two magnets collide. Remarkably, both Patterson and Le Vine are making their off-Broadway debuts—but then, they’re Carnegie Mellon grads, survivors of a cutthroat training program known for its emphasis on physical attractiveness as well as academic rigor. Individually, and as a pair, they’re riveting.
Equally attention-worthy, in a parallel subplot, are Emily Skinner as Rosemary, an Our Miss Brooks-ish involuntary spinster, and John Cariani as her intended (from her perspective). Rosemary’s future seems easily as precarious as Madge’s.
Come Back, Little Sheba: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
It’s a tough life, being a bored housewife—and it was no doubt doubly so during the gender-role-restricted '50s. It’s also tough being trapped with one, shuffling about in her housecoat, for the duration of a two-act play, especially when said housewife’s emotive menu appears limited to saccharine or morose, with a side order of wounded pride. Of course, Lola, the central character of Inge’s starter script, has a lot more going on under the surface, as she navigates the thin ice that is spousal sobriety. It takes a tedious two hours, however, for the playwright and performers to delve to that level.
Joseph Kolinski, as Lola’s chiropractor husband Doc (her teen pregnancy scotched his M.D. ambitions), is up to the task when it’s time to erupt: ACOA alums may well experience a dash of PTSD. However, Heather Mac Rae, as Doc’s ever-accommodating helpmeet/doormat never convinces as a fully rounded, credible character—partly because Mac Rae, at 70, is seriously miscast as a woman getting over a shotgun marriage in the relatively recent past. Lola muses about what her life would be like had her baby lived: “She could be going to college—like Marie.”
Marie (pert Hannah Elless) is their boarder, a practical-minded coed who’s indulging in a temporary fling with a jock (David T. Patterson) while awaiting a proposal from her more suitable boyfriend back home (Rowan Vickers). (The two actors shoulder similar archetypes in Picnic.)
Alas, the machismo differential that proves thrilling in Inge’s more mature work is window dressing here. The focus remains doggedly, dispiritingly on Lola, Doc, and—only as a glaring metaphor—their lost puppy, the titular Sheba (a.k.a. Youth). While Lola, lonely, buttonholes an assortment of deliverymen (John Cariani, overindulging in shtick) and pimpishly facilitates assignations for Marie, we see Doc secretly panting for a piece of the action.
It’s a recipe for intergenerational ickiness, underscored by the couple’s constant use of the gag-inducing pet names “Daddy” and “Baby.” Inge does not hold back on the psychosexual subtext—naughty territory for the time period, but heavy-handed today.
The Gym at Judson. By William Inge. Directed by Jack Cummings III. With ensemble casts. Running time for Picnic: 2hrs 20mins. Two intermissions. Running time for Come Back, Little Sheba: 2hs 20mins. One intermission. Through Apr 23.