Small town, big drama
River Stage’s opening-season production of Picnic is packed with thoughtful performances and powerful moments. William Inge’s passion play, a shocker in the 1950s, still has the ability to titillate while providing a peek into social norms gone by.
This is a slice of Midwestern life in a small town, where little happens on the surface but discontent bubbles beneath. Inge uses small towns much like filmmakers use the suburbs today, to illustrate that placid acceptance and proper appearances often hide frustrations and unfulfilled dreams.
In this small Kansas burg lies a world of women with deeper yearnings. Helen Potts (Shirley Sayers) lives in one clapboard house with her elderly mother. Next-door is widow Flo Owens (Claudia Wrazel) and her two teenage daughters, referred to by everyone as Millie (Kate Ballou), the smart one, and Madge (Athena Bergen), the pretty one. Single schoolmarm Rosemary (Martha Omiyo Kight) hangs around two other single schoolmarms and rents a room with the Owens family.
Into this bevy of lonely women comes a stranger who offers to help Mrs. Potts around the yard. Hal (Brian Rife), a smoldering shirtless wonder, sends everyone a-titter and unleashes a series of unexpected events. Some of the reactions illustrate the limited options available to women at the time. Madge’s mother is intent on pushing her to marry the town’s college man, while Rosemary is desperate to lose her “old maid” title. Helen just wants to feel the flesh of a man one more time.
Director Adrienne Sher finely finesses these moments so the audience really understands the context of the women’s anxieties and fears. Sher lingers on the small gestures while wisely relying on humor to lighten other issues. And she nurtures her talented cast, resulting in strong performances from the main characters as well as every single support player.
Bergen and Rife are quite believable as the town beauty and the misunderstood bad boy. Though you know they’re doomed in the long run, you understand the igniting emotions that pull them together. All the performances resonate, but the ones that linger most are Ballou as Millie, Kight as Rosemary and Brent Bianchini as the good guy who doesn’t get the girl.