No Picnic: William Inge’s Classic Shows Its Dark Side

With Ellen Burstyn in an unusual role

Mr. Birney was of a like mind. “There are several ways to look at it,” he suggested. “They’re two lonely, middle-aged people, and they’re going to be together—and that’s better than being alone. But, at the same time, I feel like Howard doesn’t really want to get married. Howard’s really a confirmed bachelor, so I can see a lot of very quiet evenings at their house, or he goes out for a long walk, or he goes to the bar by himself. But she’s married, and, as far as she’s concerned, Rosemary has a happy ending. I think they’ll hang together. I also think an argument could be made that they do have fun together, and maybe they’ll find a way to have a good time.”

The adage that there are no small roles, just small actors, is demonstrated by the towering talent at the beginning and end of the play and hovering about benignly all night: Ellen Burstyn, filling to the brim the small, seemingly inconsequential role of the nurturing neighbor, Mrs. Potts.

To what do we owe this surprise? “First,” beamed the brand-new octogenarian, “I’ve set for myself a program of doing a play a year—somewhere, somehow—so this is my play for this year. And two, I watched Sam Gold’s production of Uncle Vanya, and I just thought it was spectacular, so I wanted to work with him. And then, when I read the play, although Mrs. Potts isn’t one of the biggest parts in it—it’s a little puny in size from what I’m used to—I just fell in love with her. I liked her so much, and I was interested in playing her, so I said yes.”

Flexing and stretching her acting muscles, Ms. Burstyn found a new way into the role. “Mrs. Potts is usually cast as a sexless old biddy,” Mr. Birney pointed out. “The joke is, here’s this dried-up old corn husk going gaga on the young man. Well, Ellen is still a very sexy lady and has a whole vibrancy that Mrs. Potts usually doesn’t have. When she ran off with the Potts boy when she was a young woman, her mother found her the day they got married and had the marriage annulled, so she is Mrs. Potts in name only. She has never really had a love life. The way Ellen is playing it, there’s this wonderful arrested development. She’s an old woman who’s like a young girl. She has crushes on boys the way young girls do, and it’s quite poignant.”

In Inge Country, everybody has a dark side.

editorial@observer.com

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