The women who took over the American workforce during World War II were abruptly expected to quit once the boys started coming home. And while many looked forward to settling down with a traditional Mr. Right and staying home to raise 2.7 babies, there were others who were torn between the safety of normalcy and their yearning for something more dangerous and adventurous when William Inge's Pulitzer-winning Picnic premiered on Broadway in 1953.
Like those Chekhov dramas that the author called comedies, very little and a whole lot happens in Picnic, as much of the play is spent introducing us to relationships that have been simmering long before the curtain rose. Director Sam Gold's grounded and sensitive production benefits from an excellent ensemble of veteran actresses who beautifully balance the humor and sorrow of this delicate piece and a realistic set from Andrew Lieberman that allows the audience to peak through windows into bits of more private moments.
The action fully takes place in adjoining back yards of two homes in a rural Kansas town – even the title event occurs offstage – on a hot September Labor Day. In one home Flo (Mare Winningham) has been left by her husband to raise their two daughters alone. 18-year-old Madge (Maggie Grace), who's expected to snag a husband and settle down before her privileges as the prettiest girl in town diminish, sells beauty aids at the local dime store while entertaining longings to escape the confinements of small town life. Her brainy adolescent sister Millie (Madeleine Martin) is a sarcastic tomboy who dreams of moving to New York to make good on her artistic talents. She mocks Madge's physical charms while secretly envying the attention she attracts.
Renting a room from Flo is unmarried schoolteacher Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel) who claims to love the independence granted her by the single life. Her gentleman friend, Howard (Reed Birney) seems in no hurry to be in a committed relationship.
Next door lives Helen (Ellen Burstyn), a widow left alone to take care of her never-seen mother.
Sparks start hitting the dull everyday sameness of these women's lives when Helen hires handsome young drifter Hal (Sebastian Stan) to pick up some extra money doing yard work, which he frequently does shirtless, displaying an impressive physique. While the other women go giddy over Hal's attractiveness, Madge is drawn to him because she sees in him someone who, like herself, is valued only for beauty. Complicating matters is that Hal's old chum is Madge's fiancé, Alan (Ben Rappaport), a nice, financially well off guy who doesn't seem concerned with anything about his bride-to-be beyond her looks.
While Winningham lovingly shows Flo's concern over her oldest daughter's future and Martin is excellent as the ignored teen with the drive to make something of her life, the production's only flaw is the lack of chemistry between the young couple. Grace has the looks and coltish presence to make Madge believably desirable but her conflicting emotions regarding taking the safe route with Alan or plunging into dangerous waters with Hal seem only rudimentarily explored. Likewise, Stan struts with runway model confidence but we lose the inner workings of Hal. Their lack of chemistry together leaves the central drama hanging.
Marvel, however, sets off numerous sparks in her boisterously comic performance, especially in a second act scene where, fueled by alcohol, Rosemary comes to realize that she really does want to get married. Her desperate pleas to Howard to marry her, pitifully low in self-esteem, are played with such agonized force that the scene is difficult to watch. Gold stages the moment's end with chilling sadness. It is unquestionably the dramatic acting highlight of the Broadway season thus far.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Mare Winningham, Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan; Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel.
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