Winning a Pulitzer Prize for drama doesn’t mean a play deserves to become a classic. Horton Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta (Pulitzer 1995) and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive (1998) dated themselves quickly and were weak choices to start with. In this decade, Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (2011) was an unremarkable play about real estate made important only because it served as a sequel to a greater play, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which didn’t win the Pulitzer in 1959.
And then there are the deserving classics that get forgotten, like William Inge’s Picnic, the 1953 Pulitzer winner now playing with a strong supporting cast at Theatre Three, directed by Bruce Richard Coleman. This play’s award fell between two dramas that for good reasons have dropped off theatrical radar, The Shrike by Joseph Kramm (1952) and The Teahouse of the August Moon by John Patrick (1954).
Picnic is sometimes dismissed by theater snobs as a quaint “front porch play” (Inge’s original title was Front Porch), but it’s much more than that. In some ways, it’s as profound and unsettling as Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (Pulitzer 2008).
Set on a hot Labor Day in early 1950s, small-town Kansas, Picnic brings together several generations of husbandless women. They are smart, lonely and sexually stifled in their small, frowsy lives. So when a husky young stranger named Hal Carter appears at one widow’s back door, begging for breakfast and only too willing to doff his dirty shirt, sex and danger intrude on the characters’ daily tedium. (It’s a theme Inge also used in an earlier play, Come Back, Little Sheba.)
One by one, the five main women in Picnic reveal the effect Hal’s presence has. At the far end of the age spectrum, Mrs. Helen Potts (a feisty Georgia Clinton) is the one who welcomes Hal (Haulston Mann) into her shared backyard, feeds him cherry pie and offers to do his laundry. Soon she’s inspired to bake him a “Lady Baltimore cake” and to spend more time off the porch watching him tend the trash fire “naked as an Indian” than inside looking after her bedridden old mama.
At the other end is brainy teenage tomboy Millie Owens (Maya Pearson), struggling to use dormant flirting skills to steal Hal’s attention, if only briefly, from her pretty-but-vapid older sister, Madge (Grace Montie). And then there is Millie and Madge’s single mother, Flo (Stephanie Dunnam), whose instincts about Hal turn out to be accurate, and spinster schoolteacher Rosemary (Amber Devlin), who rents a room in Flo’s two-story home and dates a hard-drinking “novelties and notions” salesman named Howard (David Benn).
Unfolding in three acts, going from early morning to night on the same day, Picnic forms its romantic triangle right away, with Madge’s well-to-do boyfriend Alan (John Ruegsegger) being held up as the paragon next to rough-hewn college dropout Hal.
“Madge, a pretty girl doesn’t have long — just a few years when she’s the equal of kings and can walk out of a shanty like this and live in a palace with a doting husband who’ll spend his life making her happy,” says mom Flo. “Because once, once she was young and pretty. If she loses that chance, she might as well throw all her prettiness away.”
“I’m only 18,” says Madge.
“And next summer you’ll be 19,” says Flo, “and then 20, and then 21 and then 40.”
Inge loves contrasts: of age against youth, singlehood against marriage, of brains against brawn and brains against beauty. Tough little Millie at 16 has already won a four-year college scholarship, but Madge, a dime-store clerk, is seen as the catch of the county, though she’s so mentally vacant she admits that “lots of time, I wonder if I really exist.”
Alan, son of the town factory owner, is mad about Madge in that certain way a frat boy loves a hot blonde, but she sees him as too safe and dull. She wants Hal, the boot-wearin’ wild child with no money but plenty of sizzle. Ignoring parental advice and picking the bad boy is an age-old plot turn. Juliet ditched Paris and picked Romeo.
Theatre Three’s production features some of Dallas’ best older women actors as the widows and spinsters. Clinton, despite a terrible wig, hints in her wiggle and the glint in her eye that Mrs. Potts was once a tigress in the bedroom. Dunnam makes Flo a seething cauldron of hate whenever Hal’s around. She even sews with fury.
Every woman’s frustration at being taken for granted by her romantic partner is expressed in Picnic’s best scene late in the play. Schoolmarm Rosemary, tippled after a date with old Howard, begs him to marry her, as if the proximity of Hal and Madge’s chemistry has lit a fuse and Rosemary will self-destruct if she can’t get a commitment before school starts. Amber Devlin plays Rosemary with a rawness that’s both wonderful and difficult to witness. What a marvelously calibrated, delicately paced and explosively funny-sad performance.
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The younger actors in this production do what younger actors do: Let their acting show. Pearson hits the comic notes as Millie but gets lost in the dramatic moments. Ruegsegger is so bland as Alan, he blends right into the scenery. (The facing porches are realistically rendered by designer Michelle Harvey.)
As Hal, Haulston Mann displays a smoothly waxed chest but not enough hubba-hubba heat. He moves and looks, with his Bieber hair and loose hips, too 21st century for the period. Same for Grace Montie as Madge. She’s an unsure actor and she looks wrong, too, wearing Farrah hair-wings (with dark roots) and a tan as sloppily applied as her acting technique. (She also sports ugly beige “character shoes” instead of proper 1950s sandals or espadrilles. Coleman did the costuming.)
In smaller roles as Rosemary’s fellow old-maid teachers, LisaAnne Haram and Cheryl Lowber provide some bubbly interruptions.
Picnic holds up well as a play about women starved for male attention. It’s definitely a feast for older actors like Clinton, Dunnam and Devlin, who are hungry for good roles.
continues through November 22 at Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St. (in The Quadrangle). Tickets $25-$50 at 214-871-3300 and theatre3dallas.com.