There are theatrical experiences so real, so raw that it is only when the house lights go up that you remember where you are. Time passes imperceptibly and there is no one to your right or left, just those people up on the stage. Such is the mesmerizing effect of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Picnic (by William Inge.) Directed by Sam Gold and with an ensemble cast only dreamed of in parlor games, Picnic is a feast.
The set (Andrew Lieberman) is brilliant, designed with the (harmless) voyeur in mind. The Owens house is front and center with many rooms visible. Scenes play in and out of the house and across yards and we watch from across the way. We watch Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) long for what’s best for her daughters Madge (Maggie Grace) and Millie (Madeline Martin.) We watch the Owens boarder Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel) grasp at a chance for happiness. And Mrs.Potts (Ellen Burstyn) watches them because it makes her feel alive and gives her respite from a demanding invalid mother. There are men who propel the motion of their lives as well. Howard (Reed Birney) has been a steady presence in Rosemary’s life and Alan (Ben Rappaport) may just be Madge’s future. It is Hal (Sebastian Stan) who comes to upend their lives.
Picnic really is the story of women and how they live within the social confines of the 1950s and manage their desires. Flo, a single parent for many years, knows her daughters can have more than she ever did. She sees the artistic and intellectual gifts of her youngest Millie. Her elder Madge is stunning and Flo recognizes her beauty for the commodity it is. She is blunt with Madge about the shelf life of such an asset. Madge doesn’t see the point in being pretty, although she certainly does manage to have a great deal of fun with her looks. She’s savvy enough to realize that her sister has far more than she ever will. Flo sees Al as Madge’s ticket to the good life and encourages her daughter to fake passion to gain his commitment. Rosemary, the ‘spinster school teacher’ of a certain age is coming up right to the edge. She is a ball of fire and energy and is filled with more life than the women half her age. She senses (as Flo does about Madge) that it’s now or never.
It is this urgency of both Flo and Rosemary that provide the most powerful moments of the play. The power and anguish unleashed is unsettling. There is an impulse to turn away. But watching Ms. Winningham and Ms. Burstyn together is not to be missed. And to watch Ms. Marvel in what can only be called a Tony worthy performance is amazing. Ms. Marvel is unrecognizable physically. Normally a lovely and graceful, erect woman, she is curved and springy as Rosemary. In her wig and costume she is reminiscent of an energetic Eileen Heckart. It is her performance and her scenes with Howard that will linger. Their relationship and Rosemary’s longing are played out in a stirring dance sequence (Chase Brock choreographer.)
If there is any weakness in this magnificent production it is that of the ingenue casting. Watching Madge struggle with the superficiality of her ‘gift’ would be more compelling with a more layered actress. Casting Ms. Grace was an interesting stroke of realism, but might have missed to mark just a bit. Mr. Stan conveys a splendid mix of ingratiating grifter and wounded soul, but physically he may not be ideal. There isn’t enough difference in presence between Hal and Al to fully grasp Madge’s attraction. But as this play belongs to the grown women, it’s a minor point.
For all of its very raw and heartbreaking moments, Picnic is an uplifting play. Witnessing people finding their way and grasping joy is always inspiring. And there may never be a stronger ensemble and director than that of this production.