Watching this William Inge play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, through the lens of 21st century America offers some interesting frisson between past and present. All the sexual repressions of the 1950s radiate palpably from the stage, but the overlay of a 2013 sensibility lets you see how gender performances and roles have become a bit more elastic for men and for women. Looking back on the 50s through Inge’s story allows for almost Brechtian historicization, a reminder that social relations do change, even if the pathos of the constrained options Inge outlined continue to resonate, if differently, in a contemporary landscape.
In a small Kansas town, a community of yearning women and inadequate men muddle through their lives, trying to make the most of the few raw materials they can marshal as middle-class white people with stunted dreams.
Into their midst walks the charismatic Hal Carter, a drifter with a questionable past and a dubious future who boasts a stunning set of tanned and oiled six-pack abs. His sexual heat undoes the women and the men with whom he comes in contact, highlighting all their thwarted desires and their narrow, prosaic lives. Although a few things change after Carter breezes into and out of town, Inge underlines how most things stay the same for his characters, as most of them return to the drudging conventionality of the lives they live rather than the ones of which they dream.
One of the production’s early pleasures is how director Sam Gold instructs his female cast members to stare nearly dumbfounded at the brawny newcomer’s bared torso, turning Sebastian Stan’s Carter into the beefcake object of our collective gaze. In the subdued mid-West of the 1950s, a man who paraded around the yard with his shirt off was cause for some scandal.
But in Gold’s sensitive and even humorous interpretation, Carter’s flaunted body becomes the nexus for the women’s frustrated longings, the physical manifestation of all they haven’t been able to achieve and every disappointment they’ve suffered instead. It’s also just fun to see a man made so blatantly the object to be looked at. With his shirt either opened to his waist or off completely, Stan’s abs and biceps are lit and displayed for maximum effect.
Which is a good thing, because Stan’s performance never clicks as the magnetic drifter to whom every other character compares him or herself and comes up lacking. With his broad shoulders and tall stature, Stan gets some of Carter’s physical presence right. But he’s not enough in control of his performance to really generate the brute force of sexuality that turns the women’s heads and tugs at their hearts, or that makes men feel jealous and intimidated. Stan constantly runs his fingers through his lank, slightly long hair, and looks dark and handsome.
But his portrait never develops Carter into someone with whom you can sympathize as he struggles to throw off his white-trash, Arkansas past and achieve his own version of the American Dream. He can’t become more than his body. His erotic power doesn’t get him the jobs he wants, and his big talk can’t secure him a real place in a stable community. Instead, he’s a pretty, negligent boy, whose hold on the neighborhood’s imagination only makes sense as a fantasy of freedom and flight.
When Mrs. Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn) hires Hal to do odd jobs around her house, she’s delighted to have the attention of a man filling the empty spaces in a life otherwise spent tending to her querulous, aging mother (played as a whining, shouting, off-stage presence by Lizbeth Mackay). Helen had a quick and disastrous marriage as a young woman, which her mother quickly had annulled. But Helen holds on to her would-be husband’s name, never again trying to escape from the help-mate role to which her mother keeps her chained. Played by the venerable Burstyn as a forcefully cheerful if a bit ditzy elderly woman, Mrs. Potts manages to generate some sympathy as she enjoys Hal’s happy disruption of her dull household routine.
Her close neighbor, Flo Owens (Mare Winningham), has her own history of unlucky love, referring to a ne’er-do-well and now absent husband who turned to other women and to drink soon after her two daughters were born. But the stoic Flo (beautifully performed by Winningham) determines that her daughters will redeem her by marrying up and distinguishing the family. Her eldest, the beautiful, willowy Madge (Maggie Grace, of Lost television fame), has been dating Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport), son of a local business scion whose inherited wealth and place in his father’s empire makes him a worthy catch. But it’s immediately clear that Madge feels little for Alan, an ambivalence clarified when she first sets eyes on Hal and their initial hello carries all the weight of their instant, searing attraction.
Or at least it’s supposed to. Grace is lovely as Madge, sweet and ingenuous, her dissatisfaction with a life that’s already threatening to entrap her inchoate but palpable. In Hal, she recognizes an answer to the nagging question of her dawning desire, as well as a way out of a town that objectifies her without really seeing her. Madge is confined by everyone’s gaze and their projections, since in this town at this time, being a pretty girl is the best commodity to be and to have. In Hal’s embrace, she finally feels seen for herself instead of as the local prize. But because Stan’s Hal is emotionally stiff, their great attraction doesn’t register. Their lack of chemistry hampers Grace’s ability to soar.
Despite a rather hollow central performance, the production still carries the sting of Inge’s critique of masculinity and conventional heterosexuality. As a gay man in the 1950s, he funneled his desire through the emotions of his female characters, turning them into a collection of repressed and yearning middle-aged women approaching a resigned spinsterhood. The supporting cast here rises way past the occasions that Inge establishes for them, particularizing each of their personalities and the sexuality they’ve subdued into other preoccupations.
Elizabeth Marvel, as Rosemary, the Owen’s reluctant, unmarried boarder, gives a heart-breaking but often funny performance as a woman who can’t stand her life as a reputable school-teacher one minute longer. She chafes at the propriety that’s long hampered her, and rails at Howard (Reid Birney), the ambivalent, rather happy bachelor who courts her on the weekends with a healthy dose of moonshine under his belt but would rather not marry her. That Rosemary gets her way in the end, much to Howard’s dismay, moving out of Flo’s house into his, is a Pyrrhic victory. It’s already clear that this marriage won’t be a full-hearted partnership, but a union of convenience that will allow Rosemary to say that she hasn’t wasted her life.
That’s the saddest note Picnic sounds. In this cosmology, all of these women need a man to save them from single lives of what for women here can only be seen as desolation. The youngest are determined to get out, Madge by running off with the dissolute Hal, and her younger sister, Millie, the “smart” one, by imagining New York City as her escape. Millie, played with verve and heart by Madeleine Martin, sees herself into a future in which she can have a career, alone in the city, peddling her brain instead of her body; it’s easy to imagine her becoming Peggy Olson in Mad Men. Millie’s intelligence, of course, has to be signaled by her masculinity, but in this world, only a kid who looked like a tomboy could imagine a life outside the proper performances of femininity that channeled girls into heterosexual, home-bound futures.
The men in Picnic are unhappy too, which makes Inge’s play and its gender implications so resonant. Even the Adonis-like Hal isn’t really a god; he’s a man who can’t whip himself into shape well enough to pull off the pretense that he’s who he wants to be. Howard is something of a flibbertigibbet, going on about his store and his responsibilities, creating noise around himself so that he can enjoy having illicit sex with Rosemary but not saddle himself with domestic responsibilities he clearly abhors. Alan Seymour, whose wealth can buy him any girl he’d like—Madge is a prize for an ordinary physical specimen like him—is jealous of the physical prowess Hal displays so casually. Alan might be smarter, privileged by class and position, but in Rappaport’s empathetic performance, you can tell he’d trade places with Hal instantly, if he could adopt his easy manner and sexual charisma. Though Howard and Alan have more social power than the irresponsible Hal, they measure themselves against his erotic power and his physical ease and find themselves woefully lacking.
What does it mean, then, to be a man in a world so firmly delimited by class, gender, and sexual expectation? What does it mean to be a woman? Gold uses the occasion of Inge’s play to pose these questions, letting us take the measure of Inge’s moment and ours through his elegant production. Ably realized by set designer Andrew Lieberman, lighting designer Jane Cox, and costume designer David Zinn, Gold places the homestead nearly center stage, as a corner of the Owen’s kitchen looms out into the central playing space. Characters go in and out the front door onto a porch, slamming the screen door, and we see them working at the sink or the stove in the kitchen beyond. They move around the interior space, gliding in and out of sight, in ways that made FS2 think about how the fourth-wall realism from which Picnic is made always promises more access to its characters than it actually gives.
While the scenic choice creates some difficult sight lines and some awkward moments for actors forced to say their lines out over window sills, the design makes an agile metaphorical point. The house confines all of them. When Madge climbs to her room on the third floor to prepare for her date, she dreamily leaves her curtains open, letting the audience and Howard and Hal outside in the yard watch her brush her hair and ritualistically apply her make-up. Gold invites us to watch the men watching Madge watch herself in the mirror, establishing a circuit of gazes that exemplify the yearning not just for sexual contact but for the unsullied, still-expectant life that Madge represents. The moment is piercing and poignant, demonstrating as it does that no one in this little neighborhood will get what they want, that they’ve all missed out on a happiness that was chimerical to begin with.
Because after all, there’s no redemption in Madge’s fast and no doubt fatal connection with Hal. After her public hook-up with Hal, Bomber (Chris Perfetti), the young paperboy who openly lusts after Madge, taunts her about her suddenly “bad” reputation, suggesting he wants to be next. One small step away from sexual decorum means that Madge is already risking a fall from the grace of an upright middle-class life, however deadening. But Inge suggests that staying within those bounds predicts a straitened life of homosociality, of living in groups of single, divorced, or otherwise abandoned women entertaining one another over cards at downtown hotels, showing off new dresses that adorn the untouched bodies on which they hang, making nervous jokes and laughing to stave off their own loneliness.
Madge follows Hal out of town, hoping she can write a new story from a very old tale. But on her mother’s face, worn so ably by Winningham, Flo’s wrenching disappointment, concern, and deep knowledge of how history inevitably repeats itself signals everything she knows about what the end is going to be. And that, of course, is no picnic.
The Feminist Spectator
Picnic, Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre.