On Jan. 13, a month before the 60th anniversary of the original production, Roundabout Theatre Company pitched its second Broadway revival of William Inge's Picnic at its American Airlines Theatre. It was always a warming, welcome, out-of-season treat.
You never get to the picnic in Picnic. In fact, you never even get out of the shared backyard of Flo Owens and Helen Potts, and in this production these two ladies emerge the dominant, rock-solid pillars of the play — Flo, the voice of reason constantly going against the flow to keep her two independent-minded daughters in line, and Helen, "Mrs. Potts in name only," caring for an invalid mother who years before halted her elopement with the Potts boy ("Mrs. Potts" is a spiteful moniker).
Without undue stress or strain or turning the play on its head, these two supporting roles who are usually lost in the steamy goings-on of the younger folks have been strongly cast with Mare Winningham, in her first Broadway appearance, and Ellen Burstyn, in her eighth, and, accordingly, they are the last to take their curtain calls.
Around them, in Rings 1 and 3, are two different sets of lovers, old and young. The seniors are really old-marrieds without that piece of paper: spinster schoolmarm Rosemary Sydney dreading the next semester and confirmed bachelor Howard Bevans, who peddles notions, novelties and school supplies. Elizabeth Marvel and Reed Birney, best-known for terrific work Off-Broadway, received entrance applause from the opening night audience along with Winningham and Burstyn.
The secret ingredient of this production is the set of young lovers who come from television — Sebastian Stan from "Political Animals" and Maggie Grace from "Lost." They respectively swaggered and slunk on stage without so much as a ripple, although it must be admitted that when he removes his shirt the audience is electric and that she manages with no effort at all easily to exude an idealized girl-next-door.
Over a long, hot, still-summer weekend in the early '50s — the Labor Day weekend — these storylines intersect and short-circuit. What Inge really wrote was a comedy — and Sam Gold's character-driven direction underscores this, but he also brings out the heart and pain that lurk in those laughs. You slowly begin to realize that this is a romance disguised as a comedy-drama when you start rooting for some good old-fashioned, guilt-free sex, which the stage hasn't seen a lot of lately.
Stan and Grace deliver those goods in spades, and director Gold admitted it was no problem. "They came with the chemistry," he said, rather modestly for a director.
Stan makes a manly presence of himself as Hal Carter, a college-dropout drifter who strolls into a small Kansas town and unnerves the ladies, eventually zeroing in on Madge Owens, Flo's eldest (Grace), despite the fact she's promised (sorta) to his fraternity brother, Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport), the rich kid in town.
Grace, in a manner of speaking, is a product of Picnic. "It was my parents' favorite film," she said, "a big thing in my family." They've since divorced, but both showed up on opening night. Her Playbill bio ends thanking her parents, Rick and Valerie.
"We had fun tonight," she said of the cast. "We were really present to each other. It's a special group. There's a magic to that alchemy. I don't know what Sam did with casting, but it's a great group. We join hands before every performance."
Beyond beauty, there was a lot she wanted to bring out in Madge. "There's a longing with her, like there is with many of the other characters in the play. I think, with her, it's fun to find the places where she's not the classic ingénue — a vapid, gullible, sort of flotsam-and-jetsam person. There's something more. I think there's a sense that she's going to mess up her life, and she doesn't care who sees her do it, that he's her mistake, and, even if it is a mistake, at least it's her mistake. She doesn't have a lot of options but she really wants to forge her own path. I hope at the end we're having some complex feelings about the futures of each of the people in this play."
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