And it’s a truly old-fashioned picnic, set as it is in the early ‘50s. In this small Kansas town, the Labor Day picnic is summer’s last fling, so to speak. It’s the social event of the season, one that the townsfolk hold “as an excuse to let something thrilling happen in our lives,” according to Helen Potts, a longtime widow played by Sandra Hackman.
Mrs. Potts’s backyard adjoins the Owens yard—no barrier walls in that time and place. Thus the neighbors know pretty much everything that goes on in each other’s lives, and surmise what they don’t know for sure. So it’s not long before everyone in town is speculating about the handsome stranger who is carrying out the trash for Mrs. Potts in exchange for his hearty breakfast.
A train whistle announced Hal Carter’s arrival. Hal is an affable fellow, but seems to be penniless and hungry. He soon makes his acquaintance with teenagers Millie and Madge Owens (Elise Gould and Amanda Arbues, respectively) as they sit on the wooden steps or the porch rocker. And with their skeptical mother Flo (Fran McCreary) and also with the family’s roomer, Rosemary Sydney, strongly portrayed by Nancy Lantis.
It quickly evolves that Hal is not a stranger to everyone in town. When Alan Seymour (Jon Snow) comes to remind Madge of their date for the picnic, he immediately recognizes Hal from college days. Days, that is, when their sophomoric stunts were the life of many parties. Somehow, Alan is still in school, while Hal’s academic days were decidedly numbered. Now Hal tries to capitalize on their buddyhood to get a job with Alan’s father.
The Owens girls are defined by all as “Millie is the smart one, Madge is the pretty one,” and both try to escape their roles. As a rambunctious tomboy destined to head for college, Millie is totally unsure of how to find any femininity within herself. “Bomber,” the paper boy (S. Taylor), exacerbates her pain by taunting her as “Goon Girl.”
Madge, femininity personified, wants more than to be told continually how “pretty” she is. It doesn’t help that her mother constantly reminds her to make the most of her looks while she can, because pretty soon she’ll be “19, then 20, then 40.” What Flo has in mind—or should we say “who” Flo has in mind?—is Alan, who has been courting Madge all summer. He could lift Madge away from her dime-store clerking job into a country-club life after he graduates. He’ll soon leave for his senior year, and Flo is over-eager about having her pretty daughter assure Alan of her affection before he goes. But Madge isn’t all that sure how she feels about Alan.
And less sure, once she glimpses bare-waisted, muscular Hal (Allen Cutler) across the yard. She’s not the only one who notices the drifter; all the ladies seem enchanted by him. Mrs. Potts finds that having a man around the house makes her feel like a woman again. Rosemary’s friends Irma (Melody McCormick) and Christine (Donna Ieraci) give Hal a couple of surreptitious girlish giggles. Only mother-hen Flo is wary of him, projecting cynicism from her own past with men.
Even tight-laced Rosemary casts an eye in Hal’s direction. Not that she’s personally interested; she is, after all, the old-maid schoolteacher in town and destined to remain so. Oh, she dates 40-ish Howard Evans (Jack Chansler) but that relationship hasn’t gone anywhere in years.
Until now. Hal’s arrival has indeed upset the romantic applecart. Long latent feelings begin to stir. Playwright William Inge has a fine touch in showing the undershadows of each character’s psyche. Defiant Millie…insecure teenager. Prettiest girl in town…yearning to be thought of as more than just pretty. Brazen schoolmarm…achingly lonely lady. Hard-working tradesman…reluctant bachelor. Even Hal, for all his male bravado, finally acknowledges his vulnerabilities.
The first act of this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama lays the groundwork for the seemingly innocuous upcoming Picnic. With the second act, all the relationships disentangle from their facades into their more basic instincts. As the chemistry grows between Madge and Hal, the dissonance grows between them and Alan. As Rosemary’s angst over her endless days ahead, her urgency to marry resistant Howard reaches a heart-breaking pitch. “Please!” she cries.
It’s the age-old tale of choices between the heart and the head, remembered by many of us from the movie starring William Holden and Kim Novak. It’s retold here by a superb cast directed by Bob Hakman, assisted by Michael Dessin. Ward Calaway is producer.
The backyard with its wicker coffee table and side chair, rustic wooden swing, picket fence and gate, and tool shed are designed by Eric White. Leisel “Q” Quamie brings the fifties to life with her retro costuming, right down to Rosemary’s black-seamed stockings. Melodie McCormack is stage manager. Ruth Thompson is in charge of properties. Laura Holbrook is the choreographer.
Master Carpenter Richard Thompson’s construction crew comprises Don Bergmann, Juan
Guzman, Larry Taylor, Jon Snow and Calaway. Steve Shaw is the sound designer and operator. Lighting designer is Kim Smith, and with Maureen Davis serves as light operator.
Brad Gantt designed the poster art. John Johnson is production photographer and, with Calaway, is responsible for program design and layout. Philip Sokoloff is publicist. Orlando Mendoza is house manager.
We’ll be enjoying Picnic on the Sierra Madre Playhouse stage weekends through April 11. Curtain time is 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. for Sunday matinees. Admission is $20 general, $17 for seniors (65+) and students (12-18), and $12 for children under 12.
The Sierra Madre Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Free parking is available in city lots. Restaurants on Baldwin Avenue and Sierra Madre Boulevard offer pre-theater dining for every taste. For reservations or more information, phone (626) 256-3809, or visit the website, www.sierramadreplayhouse.org, for information or for online ticketing. Note that the online ticket charge has been removed.
By Fran Syverson