Everyone in William Inge‘s Pulitzer winning 1953 play Picnic seems to be yearning, striving, or regretting (which is really just another form of yearning).
No-nonsense Flo Owens is still wounded by lost love; her husband–who wasn’t all he was cracked up to be–left years ago. Meanwhile, her comely daughter Madge yearns for some magical development that will somehow make her endlessly talked about beauty more meaningful. Madge’s tomboyish sister Millie yearns to be accepted as more than just the pretty one’s younger sibling. And several older characters long to feel younger, to reclaim relevance, or to nab a last-chance wedding ring.
Enter Hal, the wanderer with a rough past and a lot of bravado, who stirs the pot while everyone’s tongues drop for miles.
Angsty Hal yearns to get Madge out of her banal life and onto his own fast track, even if his old frat buddy Alan is desperate to keep his own relationship with Madge going and turn it into a comfortable marriage!
All these conflicting desires come together in a backyard in a Kansas town, where booze, dancing, and altercations generally raise the already high temperatures to extraordinary levels.
Sam Gold‘s new production is a mixed-bag stab at the play, pumping up the comedy in the first half, then going for slower, more somber tones in the second.
Reliable names like Mare Winningham and Ellen Burstyn do nice ensemble work, and the scene where the inebriated schoolteacher (Elizabeth Marvel) drops to the ground and pleads for a commitment from her boyfriend (Reed Birney) helps make up for an unfocused performance from Marvel before that. I was also intrigued by the fact that Alan is more of a shlub here than the usual hunk (Paul Newman played it originally, then Cliff Robertson in the movie), though it lowers the stakes and makes Madge’s romantic decision way less of a dilemma.
But for this play to work–for it to be an American answer to Chekhov, with Tulsa standing in for Moscow–it’s got to have a burning attraction at the center of it.
Unfortunately, while Sebastian Stan has the glistening body for Hal–and he gets to show it a lot–his performance is too posturey, with the rages, petulance, and aspirations not emanating all that naturally.
And while Maggie Grace is lovely as Madge, she doesn’t carve a distinctive figure, and certainly not one who seems fated to run off with Hal and gamble with the rest of her life.
So the play about dashed hopes colliding with awakened desires isn’t nearly as electric as it could be, but it’s still a vintage trip back to muddled 1950s morality and the poetic hopes that rose up in spite of it.