Playwright: William Inge. At: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St. Tickets: 773-409-4125 or ATCweb.org; $20-$38. Runs through: April 23
If American Theater Company wanted to graft a descriptive subtitle for its production of Picnic, it could easily be "A post-modern, queer and racially inclusive interpretation by transgender artistic director Will Davis."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. In staging this 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic by late gay playwright William Inge, Davis shows he isn't interested in serving up the same old 20th-century realism.
But as the musical Hamilton has proven, audiences can accept non-traditional castingespecially when it heightens the theatricality. Davis takes similar risks with selective gender swapping and colorblind casting for his artfully symbol-laden Picnic.
Davis' efforts largely succeed for Inge's drama of repression and romantic longing in a small Kansas town. Many strong performances come shining through with the color-saturated lighting by designer Rachel Levy atop set designer Joe Schermoly's carpeted platform.
With a manly swagger and adept dance moves, Molly Brennan made an engaging Halthe hunky drifter who upends the lives of two households filled with women. Sporting a buzz cut with a shock of purple hair on top, Brennan conveys Hal's desperation and rootless existence.
But it is Michael Turrentine as the self-described "old-maid schoolteacher" Rosemary who steals the show. Turrentine's effeminate demeanor and camp dialogue delivery are hilariously perfect. Yet Turrentine also knows how to unleash the dramatic goods when Rosemary rips into Hal for refusing to dance.
As the mother Flo Owens and the shop owner Howard Bevans, respectively, Patricia Kane and Robert Cornelius are both on solid and touching dramatic footing. Laura McKenzie is kept very busy portraying the elderly neighbor Mrs. Potts, while also voicing smaller walk-on roles and playing the piano ( or seeming to since some interludes are prerecorded in Miles Polaski's evocative sound design ).
The other performances by Jose Nateras, Alexia Jasmene and Malic White are fine, although there are times when it feels like they could dig deeper into probing their characters' anger and lingering insecurities.
There is also some room for staging improvements in Davis' intermission-less Picnic. Some scene changes lack motivation ( the bucket-brigade basket removal ), or simply go on too long ( the final tableau should be completed before the music runs out ).
But these visible joins to what should be a seamless staging aren't too problematic. Davis' bravery in deconstructing a classic like Picnic is noble and reveals plenty of underlying and unexpected insights into the lives of those who do and don't follow their hearts.