Boyfriend, Sister and Mom: Meet Three of Broadway's Picnickers
By Harry Haun
Three players from Broadway's Picnic — Ben Rappaport, Madeleine Martin and Mare Winningham — talk about the dreams and disappointments of their Midwestern-bred, William Inge-penned characters.
Before life was a cabaret, it was a picnic, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play illustrating that point was William Inge's amiable fable of small-town Midwesterners on holiday and the sexy stranger who saunters in one Labor Day, unsettling one and all, and makes off with the prettiest chick in the henhouse.
Director Joshua Logan, Lord of Broadway after his South Pacific and Mister Roberts triumphs, insisted Inge phrase the argument in the positive — to let the young lovers in Picnic have a chance. That was 1953. Maybe in future productions practical, less romantic theatre artists would find darkness that lurked beyond The End.
The 21st-century director Sam Gold is now helming a Broadway revival by Roundabout Theatre Company, at the American Airlines Theatre. The jury may still be out — is Picnic's ending hopeful or sad?
The drifter in sexual overdrive, Hal Carter, is played by Sebastian Stan ("Captain America: The First Avenger," "Political Animals"). His million-dollar baby from the five-and-ten-cent store, Madge Owens, is the tall-drink-of-water actress Maggie Grace (Shannon of TV's "Lost"). And the hometown boy left behind, Alan Seymour — Hal's fraternity pal and Madge's fiancé — is played by Ben Rappaport, a third Broadway newbie.
The original play opened 60 years ago — four days after Valentine's Day, not at all inappropriately some will argue. [Plot spoiler alert!] In the original cast, Janice Rule's Madge pulled up roots and raced after Ralph Meeker's Hal, leaving Paul Newman's good manners, good looks and gobs of money (as Alan) high and dry.
Rappaport, like Newman, is making his Broadway debut as Alan the Also-Ran — and could, like Newman, win a Theatre World Award. Three years after being cited one of 1953's most promising newcomers, Newman starred in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," playing son to Eileen Heckert, who got Picnic's other Theatre World Award as spinster Rosemary.
Because Picnic marked Newman's acting ascent (and Meeker's descent), it's now hard to fathom the choice that Madge made — ending up with hunky Hal rather than decent Alan. But Logan believed that Meeker, who already had Stanley Kowalski and Mister Roberts under his Broadway belt, "was made by God for Hal" and that "the Paul Newman I knew" was a long way from Superstar Paul Newman.
Fact is, Logan originally hired Newman for the randy paperboy but upgraded him to Alan when the actor playing Alan proved dull. He did allow Newman to take over the lead when Meeker was indisposed for two weeks but wouldn't let him take the part on national tour "because you don't carry any sexual threat." That would change, fast.
Stage-and-screen-wise, Rappaport is already farther along than Newman was when he got to Broadway — plus, he's two years younger (26). After graduating from Juilliard, he gave Off-Broadway a whirl (Sex Lives of Our Parents at Second Stage and The Gingerbread House at Rattlestick), starred on a sitcom ("Outsourced") and film-debuted as the son of Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in "Hope Springs." "It's all about the balancing act," he says, "and I like doing it all."
The fact that Madge slightly towers over this pocket-sized actor is a plus for his performance. "I feel sometimes Alan can be seen as a foil for the Hal character. There's a tendency to think — because he's so well off and he's such a nice young man — he's going to be okay at the end, but I don't think that's the case. I think he has a deep obsession and idolization of Madge that he's fighting for the entire play. He's quite emasculated by the end of the play, so I think there's a lot there to suss out."
Immersing himself in the talent that populates Picnic has been an education for him. "Ellen Burstyn, for example," he says, plucking the most conspicuous name in the cast. "Going to work every day with her is like a master class in complete and utter presence. If you find yourself lost in a moment on stage, all you have to do is to look into her eyes and she brings you right back into the situation and the circumstances. That's a privilege by itself. Then, there're these other theatre actors as well — Reed Birney, Elizabeth Marvel, all of them. The days go so fast when you're having fun."
If Rappaport is sincere about following his famous predecessor's trajectory, he might check out the understudy rehearsals where Newman found his wife of 50 years, Joanne Woodward, understudying both Owens sisters, Madge and Millie. As the latter, the great Kim Stanley delivered (at 28) a definitive job of teenage angst.
The fact that Stanley originated the part of the brainy, bratty tomboy who's lost in the shadow of her beautiful big sister intimidates the current Millie-of-the-moment, Madeleine Martin, not a whit. In fact, "Kim Stanley gives me something to look up to."
She says, "Millie's quite a little iconoclast. She wants to be a successful New York writer, and I can identify with that: I'd like to have a successful New York career, too. And she gets to be fun, which I really enjoy. Sam Gold has been very helpful at bringing out those particular parts of the character. I just love playing characters like this."
Martin arrived on Broadway as a sister-under-the-cigarette-smoke, the 14-year-old upstart who effectively fends off her aunt's horny boyfriend in Tracy Letts' 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. More recently, Off-Broadway, she was Mary McCann's studious, defiant daughter in Simon Stephens' Harper Regan.
"This has been my first time working with actors who are so close to my own age. Usually, everyone's in their 40s or 50s, which I love, but this has been such fun. They're a good company. I thought certain scenes would be read a certain way, but they make different choices. I've noticed they try something new every night just to keep it fresh. I'm not like that. When I find something that works, I just stay with it."
It's rather apt that Millie's mom should be played by Mare Winningham, the most nurturing member of The Brat Pack that swaggered into public consciousness via 1985's "St. Elmo's Fire." After a near-hundred roles in feature films and TV shows, Winningham has started inching into a long-overdue stage career — first Off-Broadway (most memorably as the mother of Tribes) and now, finally, on Broadway.
Throughout the play, her Flo Owens seems like the chronic spoiler on the premises, a vigilant mother-hen on perpetual patrol to protect her daughters and maneuver them into proper, prosperous directions. "A pretty girl doesn't have long," she tells Madge, trying to angle her down the aisle to Alan while youth is still on her side.
"It's such a constraining line, yet it's said with deep love," Winningham points out. "In learning about Flo, I kept coming to the great abyss of 'Wow! This character is quite tragic and touching and funny and deep, really.' Like all of the characters in this play, she puts forth a deceptively simple surface, and then boom! — you plunge down into their pain and their hopes and their shattered dreams and desires."
What motivates Flo's one-note negativity finally comes down to a sad, single line of dialogue in the closing moments of the play. She's just trying to negotiate her girls around the perils and pitfalls out there. "When she thinks she's losing Madge, she gives voice to that very thought — very late in the game — and it's heartbreaking."
The voice of experience bleeds and pleads into the voice of reason, but is it enough to stop a headstrong, romantic young girl from pursuing her dream of true love?
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