Staging a period production is always a challenge: modernizing it inflicts change, and audiences don’t always like change; keeping the integrity of the era in which it was written runs the risk of seeming old-fashioned and stilted.
Triad Stage’s Picnic manages to overcome both challenges: while keeping the feel and face of the 1950s, when William Inge wrote the play, Triad Stage artistic director Preston Lane has made the show as fresh and titillating as a work wet off the press.
The anticipation of attending a Triad Stage production isn’t just seeing the play itself: it’s that first step into the theater space to see what magic the set designer has wrought. It never fails to surprise. In Picnic, where all the action takes place in a dry, (real) dirt-hardened yard between facades of two houses, scenic designer Howard C. Jones amazes. The houses where our characters reside are connected by a clothesline on which hang the same sad, drab clothes throughout the play.
But above! Above the clothesline, above the houses, above the heads of the audience, hangs the sky, a sky at the same time connected and disconnected to the activity below. To accomplish so masterfully the soaring spirit of a sprawling Kansas sky in all its hues adds a transcendent value that the acting can only enhance.
And in this version of Picnic, it just gets better. This Pulitzer Prize-winning script reflects Inge’s own Midwest upbringing, in this case, a cavalcade of women of every generation. Estrogen overload, if you will. And as powerful as this tsunami of female hormones can be, it takes only one man — and what a man — to topple the tower and bring an entire family’s well-orchestrated dreams crashing down.
Part of the irony of Picnic is that this story is no picnic, and neither are the lives of the female characters. Elisabeth Ritson as Flo Owens, the matriarch of this tale, perfectly characterizes the lonely, loveless, and bored women Inge so often portrayed. Determined that her beautiful older daughter Madge (Greensboro Day School alum Meg Chambers Steedle) is not going to follow in Flo’s own path of choosing the wrong man, Flo encourages a romance with a rich, well-educated, and well-mannered Alan Seymour (Matthew Carlson). Carlson (who is also a playwright) couldn’t be more fit for this role of the polished, big-man-on-campus who has fallen for Meg’s beauty and intends to make this dime-store sales clerk his bride.
Then, here comes Trouble.
The moment we lay eyes on shirtless drifter Hal Carter (Joe Tippett), we know the outcome. But, oddly, this knowledge in no way detracts from the unfolding events. In fact, it ignites them. Without spending time musing on the ability of taut skin to hug the well-defined lines of every torso muscle of our college-dropout/handyman, let’s just say, ahem. We sit spellbound, waiting for the moment when past becomes prologue, suspicions are confirmed, and we have liftoff.
But good looks would be nothing without chemistry. We’re reminded that the first Broadway showing of Picnic brought together Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (though not as Hal and Madge). It’s a scenario rife with passionate possibilities, and it does not disappoint.
The chemistry between Tippett’s Hal and Steedle’s Madge is undeniable, and without a doubt one of the reasons this production is so successful. The sparks are so believable that they leave the audience feeling more like voyeurs than theatergoers, especially in a dance scene that raises even the most jaded eyebrow.
Director Preston Lane dares to show the power of passion in raw scenes that seem to combust before our very eyes. But Picnic is so perfectly cast, it’s a shame to think of the supporting players as overshadowed by the lovers, surely one of the hottest couples ever to grace Triad Stage’s stage.
Cheryl Koski, in her Triad Stage debut as Millie, the younger, smarter, plainer Owens daughter, displays an innocence, which, while certainly studied, seems completely natural in a mischievous, vulnerable way. Amy da Luz as Rosemary Sydney, the spinster schoolteacher, gives a poignant performance that plumbs some of the darkest, most desperate moments of the play. And Lorraine Shackelford as Mrs. Potts, the meddling next-door neighbor, provides some of the lighter ones.
If you love vintage clothing — real vintage clothing, not mere costumes — you’ll see the show for its 1950s authenticity. Award-winning costume designer Kelsey Hunt has done it again with understated, true-to-era garb that holds up under the harshest Baby-Boomer scrutiny.
This dirty, dusty, superb rendition of a theater classic will hang in your memory like clouds in a Kansas sky.
Picnic runs Tuesday-Sunday though September 27. For details, see our theater calendar,