While it never crossed into being offensive, I didn’t find myself agreeing with much in this play and I’m not convinced that William Inge did either. His attempt to argue that attention must be paid to working-class Hal and sell Hal’s Rebel Without A Cause romance to Marge feels half-hearted. As played by Patterson, Hal is attractive and charming but his ambition outpaces his skill. He’s not a hard-worker who wasn’t given a fair shot but a compulsive liar, spinning tales and looking for the easiest path through life. Patterson’s performance saves him from feeling villainous. Hal’s attempt to get a job out of Alan echoes his treatment of Marge. Inge takes up the cause of working class masculinity at the expense of working class women. He lets Marge voice her dissatisfaction with only being admired for her appearance but then keeps her weak and in a destructive heteronormative cycle where women need men to fully feel like women. Her moment of agency is in choosing to follow Hal. She never learns to want anything more in life than having him share his past with her. Surely there could have been someone else to see past her looks and treat her like a real person. And although there’s evident desire between them in other scenes, Le Vine plays the aftermath of their night of passion as though it was at best coercion and at worst rape, which sours the already problematic affair.
Emily Skinner’s performance as Rosemary is the real reason to see this play. The way the character is written is highly problematic, but Skinner finds a real sensitivity in portraying what would otherwise be a stereotype. Rosemary is a schoolteacher living as a boarder with the Owens’ family. On the page, she puts up a front of independence and self-sufficiency while actually longing for marriage. Similarly, she makes a show of moralizing only to lust after Hal, molest him, and lash out when he rejects her. In Skinner’s hands, Rosemary is more than a shrew and a hypocrite. She is always reacting, even if she isn’t the focus of a scene. You feel her presence keenly and you understand her desperation when Inge, Hal, and Howard try to sweep her away into the invisibility of the role of spinster schoolteacher. The marriage proposal that should be humbling and humiliation of Rosemary becomes the powerful argument that attention must be paid that is missing from Hal’s story.
Although I’m always intrigued to investigate another classic play, I don’t think this production of Picnic made a compelling case for why it needed to be revived. It’s not expecting too much from the decade to ask for a more interesting argument about class and gender relations. And aside from the politics of the play, the material still felt dated and inaccessible. I felt there was a level of cultural context missing that was most apparent with Marge’s and Rosemary’s plots. You can make some leaps to infer why characters act the way they do but you don’t fully grasp the context of the social norms and realities of the time period while actually watching the play. While I don’t think that level of understanding would have redeemed the arguments, its absence did not aid them.
Hannah Elless’ acting usually comes across as very affected but it works here in service of bridging the age discrepancy between her and the character of Millie. She comes across as a Scout-like tomboyish character with a flair for the literary and the dramatic that disguises Elless’ inability to be naturally in character. The way this production is staged, her final exit makes you feel like she is choosing a different path in life that will end up saving her from the influence of “ornery bastards.”
John Cariani is serviceable as Howard but seemed miscast. He didn’t seem to embody the masculine counterpart necessary to balance out both Hal and Rosemary. In spite of what was in the script, he didn’t come across as lecherous enough with Marge and offered up little real resistance to Emily Skinner’s Rosemary.Read more...