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When theatergoers think of American playwrights of the 20th century, the big three jump out: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. William Inge stands in their shadow, but Inge, who came from Kansas, understood and vividly portrayed the sexual tension smoldering beneath the surface of placid Midwestern life better than anyone. The Grand Theatre is reviving "Picnic," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, in an uneven production that still captures the power and poignancy of Inge's vision, about love lost and won.
"Picnic" takes place on Labor Day. Summer is coming to an end, and the lonely train whistles of Joe Killian's intricate sound design remind us that everything is fleeting; you must grab what you want while you can.
Two neighbors Helen Potts (Betsy West) and Flo Owens (Tamari Dunbar) have planned a picnic "to let something thrilling and exciting happen," but the life-changing outcome is not what anyone expects.
Flo's two daughters, Madge (Lindsie Kongsore) and Millie (Amy Ware), are polar opposites, and each envies the other. Tomboy Millie is smart and clever and just becoming aware of boys, while Madge is beautiful and going steady with Alan (Brandt Garber), a relationship her mother encourages because his family has money and status.
But Madge is frustrated by being just a pretty face. When Hal (Michael Scott Johnson), a charming drifter, shows up in town, the two are intensely attracted to each other, disrupting the romantic status quo.
Sharply contrasting is the relationship between Rosemary (Elise Groves) and Howard (Aaron Adams), an older couple. Rosemary describes herself as "an old maid schoolteacher," and Howard represents perhaps her last chance to get married. In one of this production's best scenes, Rosemary begs Howard to marry her. Groves movingly navigates Rosemary's roller-coaster emotions while Adams' affable Howard vacillates between support and refusal to be pushed. Here, as in other scenes, director Alexandra Harbold lets the alternating distance and closeness of their stage positions reveal what they are feeling.
At the other end of the relationship spectrum, Helen and Flo have been betrayed by love. Madge asks her mother, "What can you do with the love you feel? Where can you take it?" and Flo replies, "I never found out."
"Picnic" is a multilayered play with a lot of subtext, and the performances don't consistently tap into its levels. Generally the women are stronger than the men. Kongsore touchingly juggles Madge's ennui with her desire, and Ware's Millie ricochets between youthful enthusiasm and confusion. West's accepting, motherly Helen contrasts with Dunbar's defensive, disillusioned Flo, who is determined to protect her daughters from disappointment. But Garber's Alan acts too much like a petulant spoiled brat, and although Johnson's Hal is sensual and attractive, he lacks the bravado and charisma that would entice Madge to run off with him, and he speaks so fast that it's often difficult to understand him.
Halee Rasmussen's rustic set with its two adjoining porches and wooden house fronts, and Spencer Brown's golden lighting with its sunset colors and full moon, capture the rhythms of Midwestern life. Shannon McCullock and Rachel Kimber's relaxed, unsophisticated costumes are perfectly attuned to character.
In "Picnic," Inge achingly portrays the mix of longing and loneliness, hope and disappointment that underlies rural American life. Despite its limitations, this production never falters in reinforcing the validity of his vision.
A Grand "Picnic"
The Grand's production of "Picnic" is uneven but still captures the power and poignancy of William Inge's definitive portrait of the American heartland.
When • Reviewed on March 16; Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through April 2 with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where • Grand Theatre on the South High campus of Salt Lake Community College, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18 to $26 with discounts for students, seniors, and groups. Call 801-957-3322 or visit http://www.the-grand.org for tickets and information.
Running time • Two hours (including an intermission)