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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Few writers have captured women in their social environments as well as William Inge and it's in that respect that Picnic, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, retains its power. Craig Belknap, who directed this excellent production at A Noise Within, whose mandate is the classics, shows a keen sensitivity to women's options and emotions in that period and does not reduce the characters to a group of repressed women.
The story plays out in the back yards of a small Kansas town. Helen Potts (Julia Silverman), whose life is spent caring for her invalid mother, hires a young drifter, Hal Carter (Bo Foxworth), to do odd jobs. Charismatic and muscular, Hal erupts like a source of light and life into this limited world. Others, besides Helen who are especially vulnerable are beautiful Madge (Libby West) and bright Millie (Jennifer DeCastroverde), the teen-age daughters of Flo Owens (Mary Boucher), and Rosemary Sydney (Deborah Strang), the "old-maid school teacher" who boards with Flo.
Lines are drawn early on by Bomber, the paper boy (Moze Halperin), who calls Millie Goon Girl and tells her to send out her pretty sister. "Millie is the smart one and Madge is the pretty one," is the refrain of the girls' lives and it's to Inge's great credit that he doesn't make them clichés but delineates how they've both had to struggle against those labels.
As preparations for the town picnic get under way and the dance music begins, the sexual joy Hal projects in his dance with Madge affects all the other characters. The most vivid change is seen in Inge's other great creation, the funny, dynamic Rosemary. As we see her in the midst of her teacher friends, Irma Kronkite (Kathleen Taylor) and Christine Schoenwalder (Ariane Owens), their love of good times and concern with fashionare thrown into sharp contrast with Rosemary's aching loneliness. Rosemary's boyfriend Howard (Mark Bramhall), goaded by her insistence that they marry after the night of sex that's provoked by Hal's dancing, says he won't marry a woman who doesn't at least say "please." Rosemary's "Please" is unforgettable.
Madge is torn between her mother's hope that she'll marry Alan Seymour (Andrew Hopper), the rich suitor, who's besotted with her, and her own instant connection with Hal. Having only got through high school because of the kindness of a smitten teacher, Madge works in a dime store and is constantly reminded by her mother that her looks are her only stock in trade. To her cry that she's only 18, Flo's implacable response is "Next year you'll be 19, then 20, then 21, then 40." Though she tries to convey her own experience when she tells her daughter that it takes more than love to make a marriage Madge follows her heart and we know, no matter what happens, she'd always regret it if she didn't.
Michael C. Smith has designed appropriately shabby, old small town houses whose owners don't care about prettifying them, and use a tire painted white as a centerpiece to hold flowers in the lawn. The occupants of those shabby houses are all well portrayed by this cast. Bo Foxworth is a dynamic but vulnerable Hal. Libby West catches Inge's nuances in a Madge who wants to be more than just a pretty face. Jennifer DeCastroverde finds Millie's pain but also portrays the brilliance and energy that will propel her through life. Deborah Strang plays the edges as a vivid Rosemary. Mark Bramhall lets Howard range from comic rustic to sensitive man, Mary Boucher is outstandingly credible from the get-go as Flo Owens. Andrew Hopper catches the core of the squeaky-clean Alan Seymour, a nice boy who finishes last emotionally which makes him a loser to the loser Hal.
Inge tucked great cameo parts for the two schoolteachers, played by Kathleen Taylor as a voluptuous extraverted Irma and Ariane Owens as a strange gawky Christine. Julia Silverman is Helen Potts, the neighbor who accepts her duty to care for her bed-ridden mother and finds her joy in baking cakes for the young men who work for her -- "the only way they'll pay attention to an old lady." Helen's a realist and so was William Inge. There's no greater tribute than to say that we find ourselves wondering what happened to the characters after the play ends. Inge deserves to be remembered, Picnic deserved its Pulitzer and deserves a production as good as this.
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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