Picnic at The Roundabout Theatre Company, reviewed

Sebastian Stan and Maggie Grace in Picnic at The Roundabout Theatre Company

Reviewed by Carlos Stafford

Ah, there’s a sunny feeling of freedom in the air as Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan) jumps hopefully from an arriving train, hobo style, into the small town goodness somewhere in Kansas, circa 1950.  Confident and brash, he arrives on Labor Day to meet an old college buddy, and ask for a job. Its the Eisenhower post-war years, and conservatism reigns; uncertainty has marked the prior fifty years, and America seeks a balance between traditional values, and new found prosperity. Paperboys still deliver newspapers on bikes, neighbors visit from across the way, real conversation takes place; no locked doors, women wear dresses, and men come to call.

Even though a  smooth peaceful surface exits, a palpable less defined Bergmanesque pressure builds, and searches for release. This is the American classic play, Picnic, famously made into a movie starring William Holden and Kim Novak, now being brought back for another generation at the Roundabout. The most simple of stories, faint and opaque at first, without penetrating meaning;  it quietly grows to amplify a time and place with incredible social realism and compelling universal themes.

Hal quickly moves in and, before contacting his buddy Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport), is kindly given a traveler’s yard work by Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn). Shirt off, with washboard abdominals, gladiator pecs and a charming, earthy attitude to match, he immediately draws the attention of the gals next door and becomes the unknowing fox in the hen house, ruffling feathers, raising temperatures, and awaking spirits.

Madge Owens (Maggie Grace) is the captivating young daughter to Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) who runs a boarding house next door to Mrs. Potts.  Madge is trapped in her small town blues.  She is the town’s beauty and is pursued by Alan, the responsible son of a successful business man. Flo is pushing Madge to make her decision to marry Alan before her beauty fades, but Madge is instinctively reluctant. Flo’s husband has long ago deserted the family, leaving Flo to struggle raising Madge and her younger sister Millie (Madeline Martin). Flo doesn’t want Madge to squander her chances. Madge, on the other hand, doesn’t like to be looked at as merely pretty, and even though she plays her role as beauty queen, primps and preens, she senses more for her life.

Millie, the younger sister is the opposite of Madge. Neither favored in looks, grace, nor femininity, she feels the dull, repressive weight of standing next to Madge’s luminescence. A nerd and a tomboy, she too is trapped like her sister, but in another psychological dimension–she needs admiration, attention, and care.

Hal is lost, drifting, a social outcast in trouble with the law as a younger man, living on his past glories from the gridiron. He’s cat nip for women–been many places, knows things, but never quite fits in. At college, Alan was his only friend and admirer because of his mercurial charm and outlandishness, traits Alan never remotely possessed. Alan has followed the straight and narrow, obeyed the rules and been rewarded in his father’s business. Now, Hal is looking for a snug harbor to begin his life in earnest and to succeed, finally, like his buddy.  He places his chips on the table, and Alan extends a gracious favor.

The conflict immediately arises when Madge sees Hal for the first time doing the odd jobs for Mrs.Potts next door. From her porch she sees his shirtless body and his wild spirited-command, and is immediately struck from her dream-like lethargy. At that very moment we hear mournful taps playing for Alan, and his dire hopes for marriage. Madge has suddenly lost the proverbial “loving feeling,” and has her soul immediately ignited elsewhere. Poor Alan. (Ironically, a role played by the great leading man Paul Newman on Broadway; not Hal as one would expect, for he wasn’t big enough. Then Cliff Robertson, who played Alan in the movie version, and also later became a celebrated Academy Award winner; both becoming famous afterwards having played the “loser.” Thankfully, neither were typecast in their careers.)

Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel) is a boarder in Flo’s home. A school teacher with a worldly attitude, also waiting for something undefined to happen–until Hal shows up. When she sees Hal she is galvanized. Before the picnic that day, she sees him dancing with Millie in the back yard, and breaks in. Having a few drinks earlier with her older, ineffectual beau, Howard (Reed Birney), she has a breakdown when she aggressively advances towards Hal and wildly gropes him. Shocked at her pathetic display, he recoils. Insulted, she then scorches him with verbal insults, and denounces him–his pipe dreams of ever being anyone acceptable, a lout from the gutter. Elizabeth Marvel is powerfully outstanding here with her over-the-top and shocking Medean spewing, as she looses her humanity. When she returns to sanity, demons released, she finally realizes she is old and tired, her chances for marriage and good fortune, fading fast.

Clarifying emotions filling the air, Madge and Hall run away to be together, unable to control their attraction.  Alan, betrayed by his friend and bride-to-be, calls the cops to find Hal who has borrowed his car.  Hal, who has arrived the charmer, in short order has alienated his chances once again. The town is against him.  He begs Madge to hop the next train, but she is confused and hesitates. He jumps the train and is off to Tulsa.

Worn and heavy hearted, Flo Owens and Helen Potts sit on the back stairs to their adjoining yards.  In the most poignant moment in the play, there is hushed silence as both gaze into the empty void and quietly console each other by their  simple mere presence. Mare Winningham and Ellen Burstyn are silent physically, but convey enormous feeling in their grief. Madge has decided to leave after all, and has run away to meet Hal; a man, like the man who left her years before.”There are so many things I wanted to tell her, but never got around to it,” Flo says. “Let her find out for herself,” answers Helen. All of Flo’s hopes are lost to Madge’s precarious future, and we mourn her futility and regret. The Norman Rockwellian set design, real and imagined, filled with goodness and stability, has been turned upside down, and we’re left with deep sorrow for Flo, for Helen, for Madge, for Alan, for Millie, in the few mumbled words; even for Rosemary and Howard as she “convinces” him to marry her. All the restrictions, conventions and rules created to make order in their lives, have been usurped. The apple pie has soured. Socially, with hindsight, you can feel the sixties roaring down the track.

This is a winning production, and another  bright star for The Roundabout. The set, direction, and actors all do very well, especially those that may have had some inkling of what the era was and stood for.  For the younger leads, it was more of a stretch. Maggie Grace, an obvious beauty, was more Connecticut-refined and knowing than country girl, and I couldn’t help thinking how good she’d look walking the runway rather than playing a young, trapped, corn-fed girl from Kansas. From her, I was looking for more sensuousness, more belief in her character.  Sebastian Stan also looked tremendous, had lots of great energy and athleticism, and plays a difficult character, aw-shucks meets big-time ennui, with commitment. But I wanted a little more texture and depth that director Sam Gold might have worked from him. That said, both leads created fine performances that left the audience moved.

Reed Birney was very good as the weak-willed Howard, and created great moments with Elizabeth Marvel. Ellen Burstyn was a goodly presence and such a natural force, as well as Mare Winningham, who displayed a deep and passionate sympathy for motherhood by her strong and enduring resignation.

PICNIC by William Inge

Present by Roundabout Theatre Company, New York

Directed by Sam Gold

Photo: (top) Sebastian Stan and Maggie Grace in Picnic at The Roundabout Theatre Company

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