The works of William Inge are not often revived today. Inge was a very successful playwright from the mid west, a sort of prairie Tennessee Williams. He began his career as a high school English and drama teacher, taught the same, briefly, at a college, and then worked as a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times.
His first big Broadway success was the award winning “Come Back, Little Sheba,” which went on to be a successful Hollywood film, followed by many more, including “Picnic.”
It’s difficult to say why his work, undoubtedly brilliant, has not continued to be widely produced. His eye for psychology, and his recognition of the power of sexual needs are matched only by Tennessee Williams. It may be that William’s genius has simply eclipsed Inge who, for all his excellence, lacked the magnificent poetry of Williams’ best work.
Occasionally, though, some university drama department or community theater group has a director on staff with fond memories of studying Inge’s work who stages a revival.
It is our good fortune that Adrian Elfenbaum is such a director. His revival of Inge’s “Picnic” staged at Ross Valley Players, a community theatre now in the midst of its 93rd season, is a knockout.
Elfenbaum has explored every nuance of Inge’s play, and coached his mostly amateur actors to performances of great emotional depth and subtlety.
The set up of “Picnic” is simple: a handsome stranger comes to town seeking handyman work and winds up working for the appreciative widow Potts. To say that his arrival acts as a trigger in the community is an understatement.
As the town folk prepare for a community picnic that evening, sexual electricity permeates the air they breathe, effecting the teens, the spinster schoolteachers, the widows, the bachelors, and, undoubtedly, the frogs in the mill pond. It’s like a midwestern “Midsummer Nights’ Dream.”
Inge lets the romances play out gently and comically, leading to more-or-less happy endings for all.
Although Inge does not achieve the intensity of a Williams or a Shakespeare, his eye for psychological and emotional truth is wonderful, and Elfenbaum brings this out.
The actors do their work with admirable vulnerability, digging into each scene like surgeons with scalpels. The two card-carrying union professionals in the cast do not stick out at all, but undoubtedly helped raise the tenor of the proceedings.
All of the performances are better than fine, but the work of Steve Price and Valerie Weak is especially good. They play Howard and Rosemary. He’s a bachelor businessman resistant to commitment, she an anxious spinster school teacher. the scene in which Rosemary proposes to Howard, on her knees, no less, is a touching as anything I’ve ever seen. Glorious, in fact.
Audiences will find the effort to visit The Barn Theatre at the Marin Art & Garden Center will have a great time.
The Barn, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1860 and is a gem of a venue, which adds to the charm of the occasion.
“Picnic” continues at The Barn Theater at Marin Art & Garden Center through October 9th. For further information, click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Picnic” by William Inge. Produced by Ross Valley Players. Director: Adrian Elfenbaum. Costume Design: Michael A. Berg. Sound Design: Billie Cox. Set Design: Tom O’Brien. Lighting Design: Robin DeLuca. Property Design/Scenic Artist/Set Dressing: Dhyanis Carniglia. Choregraphy: Jannely Calmell. Stage Combat/Intimacy Director: Richard Squeri. Dialect Coach: Danielle Levin.
Hal Carter: Max Carpenter. Helen Potts: Tamar Cohn. Millie Owens: Lizzy Bies. Bomber Gutzel: Dalton Ortiz. Madge Owens: Dale Leonheart . Flo Orens: Tori Truss. Rosemary Sydney: Valerie Weak. Alan Seymour: Evan Held. Irma Kronkite: Jen Marte. Christine Schoenwalder: Raysheina de Leon-Ruhs. Howard Bevans: Steve Price.