William Inge’s Pulitzer prize-winning second play, "Picnic,"
on stage at the Heights Players through Nov. 17, is a deeply
psychological drama dealing with the unfulfilled longings of
average people in a small, Midwestern town and what happens when
they see that their sterile lives can, indeed, be more exciting.
The catalyst for their realization is a young, virile drifter named Hal Carter, who arrives the day of the town picnic, hoping to find an old college friend who can offer him a job, and instead finds a bevy of women offering him their bodies.
While it is a popular choice of both amateur and professional troupes, the play requires sensitive direction and extremely talented actors who know how to express great emotion without falling into bathos and melodrama.
The Heights Players’ production, directed by John Bourne, and starring David Gordon as Carter, tries very hard, and in parts has some admirable success, but it just doesn’t have the acting talent necessary for such a demanding play.
When it was produced on Broadway in 1953, the play featured a very young Paul Newman as Alan Seymour, the callow son of the richest man in town, and Kim Stanley, in her star-making role of Millie, the not-so-pretty, but smart, younger daughter of Flo Owens.
The 1956 film starred William Holden as Carter, the Midwestern Adonis who wanders into the sleepy Kansas town, and captures the hearts and fires the passions of the women who live around the backyard shared by Owens and Helen Potts. Kim Novak played Madge Owens, the not-so-bright, but very attractive elder daughter who works in a dime store and will only get out of this stifling town by marrying a rich man (hopefully Seymour). And Rosalind Russell played Rosemary Sydney, Flo’s boarder, the old-maid schoolteacher and girlfriend of the lukewarm Howard Bevans, a local merchant.
The Heights Players’ Gordon certainly has the body. When he bares his chest onstage, if women don’t exactly faint as they reportedly did over Clark Gable’s equally naked chest in the 1934 film "It Happened One Night," they certainly take notice. He’s also not bad in the role. He’s angry, crude and willful, but he lacks the sensuality to make women swoon.
Lana Faye Taradash, as Millie, is impudent and saucy. But there’s a desperate bite that’s absent in her performance. And Melissa Nearman is attractive and dreamy as Madge, but unconvincing as a young woman whose desire has been awakened by the wrong man. Her dance scene with Gordon, which sizzled in the movie version and made the song "Moonglow" a sensational hit, here is more awkward than electrifying.
Likewise, in the movie, Rosemary is so filled with desire for Hal after seeing him dance with Madge that in a drunken fit she rips Hal’s shirt off his back. When she is rebuffed, she turns to the reliable Bevans and begs him to marry her. In the Heights Players’ production the whole context is so tepid it’s hard to make the right connections, and Rosemary, who is supposed to be taken seriously, seems almost as silly as Bevans, a foolish man devoid of aspirations, who is happy to get drunk on bootleg liquor and restock goods in his store.
A perusal of the rest of the cast would yield similar results. Only Steven Platt seems up to the job as Bevans - the shop owner who is content with his dry life in a dry goods store. But it should be noted that the role is more comedic relief than it is dramatic.
Perhaps the most praiseworthy element in the production is Bill Wood’s set - a lovingly reconstructed porch and yard, complete with realistic touches like a tire swing and a tree stump.
Although William Inge was much admired in his day, with some even hailing the playwright as a Midwestern Tennessee Williams, his reputation has seriously declined since the 1950s. The overly static, overly verbal nature of his drama is not appreciated by audiences accustomed to the quick action and pyrotechnics of today’s films.
Nevertheless, "Picnic" was shocking in its time and remains a classic in ours. If it does not seem to have much to say about human nature today, it certainly gives an accurate picture of the time it describes. And with all its faults, the Heights Players’ production is certainly better than a lot of movies and practically all network TV.
The Heights Players production of "Picnic" plays through Nov. 17, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $19, $8 seniors and students. The theater is located at 26 Willow Place at State Street in Brooklyn Heights. For tickets, call (718) 237-2752.