Simply Confusing: Picnic Dishes Out a Delightful Spread of Inge’s Rustic Realism

The Other Place’s manic medical mumbo-jumbo gets lost in its own head

The cast of Picnic.

The cast of Picnic.

William Inge, the grain belt Tennessee Williams, was one of the three most important playwrights in the American theater of the ’50s, along with Williams and Arthur Miller. He remains one of my favorites, although he has fallen out of favor in recent years with today’s alleged “critics,” eager as they are to dismiss everything written in the past 50 years, jumping on the bandwagon instead for anything experimental, outré, verbose and incomprehensible—preferably imported from London—thereby making Inge largely out of fashion (as, to some extent, are his contemporaries, Williams and Miller). But here’s the good news. Even with the inevitable mixed reviews that are accorded the return of any play to Broadway, the well-staged, sincerely acted and satisfying new revival of Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic should restore his reputation for a new generation of theatergoers who are rarely exposed to realism. I found it riveting.

Nobody wrote more profoundly about the frustrations and longings of small-town Midwesterners—and Picnic is generally considered Inge’s masterpiece (although I prefer Come Back Little Sheba, Bus Stop, and his screenplays for Splendor in the Grass and All Fall Down). It’s high time for a fresh reappraisal, and this Roundabout production at the American Airlines Theatre certainly gives us one. Presenting all men and women as uniformly flawed and in need of psychological diagnosis and treatment, the Kansas-born writer divided critics and audiences from the start, but Picnic is his least shocking play, and his most accessible. Sam Gold, an uneven director prone to annoying exaggeration, whose recent Roundabout revival of Look Back in Anger was a horror to behold, seems to understand this tortured playwright well, displaying a special affection for Inge’s slow-burning pathos and illuminating his central theme—the ugliness that stains the universe—with sensitivity and vulnerability. The play is well-served from all angles.

Attention to detail catches the eye from the start. The color of wheat fields in August, Andrew Lieberman’s set captures the script’s monotony in a claustrophobic backyard between two clapboard houses with rotting floors, soiled lace curtains begging for a breeze and rickety porches—a perfect beige backdrop for the parched lives that play out within the dry, hot perimeters of a breezeless Labor Day weekend in Kansas. The people who live here are, on one side, Flo Owens (played by the wonderful, homespun Mare Winningham), a woman whose husband left her years ago with two daughters to raise—Madge, the prettiest girl in town, who sells lipstick at the five and dime, and her tomboy sister, Millie—and, on the other side, their neighbor, Helen Potts (played by an unrecognizably gray and dowdy Ellen Burstyn). Despite her beauty, Madge is a ripe yet bored 18-year-old daydreamer, while her younger sibling Millie hides beneath her contempt for all foolish romantic notions a deep-rooted resentment of older sister’s ability to attract men of all ages. Their mother has never known love, while across the way, Mrs. Potts is a widow who knew it only briefly, spending the majority of her life taking care of her invalid mother. Along comes a sculpted alpha male named Hal, a handyman doing odd jobs for old Mrs. Potts with a dazzling smile, a lady-killer personality and washboard abs for days. He happens to also be an old friend of Madge’s boyfriend Alan from college, where he was enrolled briefly on a football scholarship. Hal has everything everyone else wants—looks, charm, sex appeal and the basic qualifications for success. But beneath the forced bragging about his adventures and accomplishments, he’s really nothing more than a beautiful bum. He is Inge’s brawny, phallic stand-in for Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth—a fading eagle with a broken wing who has failed at everything, even Hollywood, but is desperate for one last chance to soar. As the carnal catalyst who raises the women’s blood pressure and changes their lives, for good or bad, but surely forever, actor Sebastian Stan has obviously been spending every waking moment living in the gym since he memorably played Sigourney Weaver’s delicate gay son, scandalizing the White House, in the TV miniseries Political Animals. Nothing callow about him here. Strutting shirtless through the yard in cowboy boots, dripping milk from a bottle onto his oiled chest and dancing provocatively to the undulating beat of exploding hormones, he’s a rooster in the henhouse who rises above cliché. He can also act. These are decent, respectable, churchgoing Midwestern women, and Hal is rough trade. The play discovers his tenderness and awakens Madge’s hidden maturity. The friction is combustible.

I didn’t see Joshua Logan’s 1953 original that electrified Broadway and ran for 477 performances, with a dream cast that included Ralph Meeker, Janice Rule, Kim Stanley, Eileen Heckart and Paul Newman in his New York debut. (Contrary to the mistake made in this week’s review in The New York Times, it was Mr. Meeker who bared his torso in the original production, not Mr. Newman.) I can only imagine the subtext they brought to the dreary lives of people wasting away in a suffocating dead-end environment. I did see an excellent production in Williamstown with Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as the popular but disappointing 1955 movie with an all-star cast headed by William Holden and the wooden Kim Novak, both of whom were too old for their roles. The current revival nobly restores Inge’s themes of sexual repression and unfulfilled desire with a mostly splendid cast. Maggie Grace, from the TV series Lost, is a peach-colored vision of loveliness as Madge, but she’s so bland and emotionless the whole town circles her as though dancing a neurotic tango around a tree stump. As Millie, Madeleine Martin is no Kim Stanley, and if the audience laughs at her lines, it’s because she’s saying them all wrong. Everyone else deserves praise—especially Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Potts, the drab neighbor who has spent so many years sublimating her true emotions that the presence of a man around the yard turns her giddy. This is usually a minor role, but Ms. Burstyn is a great actress who not only gives a tertiary character larger dimension, but fills in the spaces between her lines. I found her resignation to a life of solitude—confessing that the only way she can win the admiration of the people outside her suffocating world is to bake them another Lady Baltimore cake—immensely moving. Her greatest contribution to this cast is her ability to listen to what everyone else is saying with commitment and energy while remaining a solid piece of the action.

Sexual repression may be the dominant theme, but Picnic is really a play about how you always want what you cannot have. Every character in it longs for something that is just beyond reach—beauty, marriage, respectability, economic security, true love, emotional peace. Inge writes warmly, with such sensitive, understated compassion about little people desperate for a place in a bigger world that his work is timeless. When Madge shocks her neighbors by packing her suitcase and following Hal to Oklahoma on the hot, sunny morning after Labor Day, she takes her first mature step toward womanhood. It will take a long pull to get there, but like Porgy, you want her to make it. That’s the way I react to Picnic—with glorious, ignominious and unconditional surrender.

Actresses are always lured to the big, meaty, histrionic roles like women losing their minds—gasping, screeching and throwing themselves all over the stage. And that’s where we find The Other Place, a pretentious, disjointed drama of no consequence by Sharr White that is often incomprehensible and at all times more schizophrenic than its leading lady, played by the game and versatile firebrand Laurie Metcalf. The play, on view at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, falls apart much faster than she does.

The character, boasting more mood shifts than a case study at Bellevue, is a 52-year-old retired medical researcher named Dr. Juliana Smithton. We are supposed to be watching her go mad, but she beats us to the punch before the play even begins. As the audience files in, she’s nervously, wildly and intensely seated on stage, fumbling with her cellphone. The scene is a medical conference in St. Thomas, where she is delivering a lecture on a drug she’s invented. In slow takes like political sound bites, she calls her daughter to describe her latest “episode,” in which she seems to have had a seizure. The daughter seems indifferent. The lights lower, and Juliana goes back in time to illustrate what she’s been through. When the lights go up again, she acts out vignettes—visits to her daughter and son-in-law and their two daughters, her divorce from her oncologist husband. When the lights go down, she vacillates between Boston and a house on the Cape she calls “the other place.” When the lights go up, she is interviewed by a nurse about her episode, which she suspects is brain cancer. In the dark, she says she allowed herself to float above the convention delegates like an apparition at a séance. The full light is the present. The lowered lights are the past. Or is it the other way around? There’s a lot of talk about genes and chromosomes.

Despite economical direction by Joe Mantello that confines the hysterics to the inside of a cage, the whole enterprise shows a lack of fluidity in more ways than one. In lieu of a plot, the play has a nonlinear narrative that jumps around in time and space like a tennis ball, making it next to impossible to figure out what the hell is going on. Everything we hear feeds what is assumed to be a growing dementia. She talks to her daughter, son-in-law and understandably exasperated husband incessantly. But the daughter ran away 10 years ago with one of Juliana’s lab assistants and never returned. The son-in-law committed suicide. The husband never divorced her at all. By the time she breaks into a private home on the Cape and establishes squatter’s rights, thinking it is “the other place,” a case of Alzheimer’s has arrived at last.

I wish I could make this sound more relevant to something in a medical journal than it really is, but it is so deliberately obfuscated that I found it less than mesmerizing. Ms. Metcalf is the only reason to bother with this verbal porridge, but she gives it all she’s got and then some. Vicious, anguished, confused, resigned, deluded, joyous, agonized, fighting with her fists, lashing out with her tongue, writhing in pill-popping pain, she crowds a lot of dementia into one hour and 10 minutes without intermission. It’s a role that calls for range and courage, and she shows plenty of both, to surprisingly little advantage (except a possible Tony Award). She chuckles like a loon. She bellows like a locomotive. One can’t imagine her better—except in a better play than The Other Place.

rreed@observer.com