Playwright: William Inge
At: Griffin Theatre Co., 5404 N. Clark
Phone: (773) 769-2228; $10-$20
Runs through: Nov. 9
According to the press materials, William Inge's Picnic has not been professionally produced in Chicago for 20 years. Those same press materials point out that Picnic, which is set in a small Midwestern town in 1953, won the Pulitzer Prize that same year.
Watching director Jonathan Berry's revival, one can't help but ask: why revive Picnic … and why now? If one searches for some link to the moral or political climate of 2003, one is hard pressed to find any parallels, or any historical reason to look back. The same company, who did such a wonderful job during their last outing with Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, shone a spotlight on a time period (shortly after the Vietnam war). This production was spot on in recreating a time and place that resonate with contemporary audiences in terms of the aftermath of war and political unrest. Nothing in Picnic provides the same resonance.
Picnic, instead, revolves around the appearance of a handsome drifter, Hal (Josh Bywater), and the effect he has on some of the town's women, who all seem to be longing for something to come along and shake up their complacent lives. For young, beautiful Madge (Katie Flahive), Hal represents an escape from a looming possible marriage to the wealthy but boring Alan (Brendan Farley) and a stultifying life. For her younger sister, Millie (Dina Connolly), who yearns to be a writer and is already poised for change, Hal holds out the promise of a life unmarked by complacency. And for the sister's mother (Patricia Donegan) and their schoolteacher friend, Rosemary (Penny Slusher), Hal is the embodiment of a force that will upset all they have ever known, making them fearful. Picnic's story arc is graceful, but really is nothing more than a nicely executed soap opera, not all that different from such signposts of the times as Grace Metalious' Peyton Place, except it lacks the sexual charge of that work. So, one wonders, why bother reviving this piece, which is a relic without much attachment to contemporary audiences. I don't think that Inge's work here would win a Pulitzer Prize today. His voice, which has been compared to Tennessee Williams, doesn't have the stamp of a classic that Williams' work does. Comparing what Inge has created here to Williams is akin to comparing a Toyota to a Bentley. A Toyota is serviceable and reliably built, but will never be a classic.
Sadly, Griffin's production does not elevate the rather tired script to anything special. Most of the performances, save for those of Slusher as the snappy, and desperate for a man schoolmarm, Donegan's society-hungry mother, and Connolly's feisty artist daughter, are pretty much one dimensional. There's no luster. Bywater, in particular is miscast as the hulking, hunky drifter. Although Bywater looks taut, lean, and attractive when he doffs his shirt to do yard work, he is not big enough or powerful enough to fill the shoes the playwright has laid out for him. References to his size and bulk in the script fall flat, because he is not the man Inge envisioned.
This production of Picnic is competent, but the play itself never takes us much further than the back yard in which it is set.