William Inge's Picnic, recently revived on Broadway, is also the School for the Contemporary Arts' spring mainstage production at SFU Woodward's, directed by Bill Dow. The first thing you notice upon entering the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre is how Dow has radically reconfigured the playing space.
While the play is still technically staged proscenium-style, rather than using the well (and its hidden wings and flyspace) at the west end of the theatre normally reserved for such proceedings, Dow has shifted the axis 90 degrees, configuring his set horizontally along the south side wall, with its exposed brick, blond wood, and steel stairs leading to the balcony. This provides the perfect backdrop to Carmen Alatorre's stunning set, a see-through plywood and steel-framed scaffolding of the Potts and Owens houses, complete with swinging porch doors and a second-story window on the latter through which the men of the town spy upon local beauty Madge Owens (a quietly coiled Amanda Williamson). A row of chairs, in a range of mid-century styles, sits in the space behind and between the two houses; here members of the cast will take turns sitting when not on stage, watching the proceedings like a Greek chorus, their positioning opposite the audience providing a nice visual metaphor for the sense of enclosure, judgment, and stifling small-town surveillance felt by many of the characters in the play, not least the two Owens sisters (Kiki Al Rahmani plays the younger, bookish Millie with a perfect mixture of frustrated longing and youthful impatience). Finally, between the set and the audience risers is a long strip of astroturf, a picnic table positioned on it centre stage, between the two houses. Much of the action will take place on or around this table. But the green carpet also extends past the set, to the Wong Theatre's normal playing space. Which, we learn at the top of the play, is not empty; rather, it contains a grand piano. Here composer Janelle Reid will sit throughout the play, punctuating its action at key moments with soaring original musical arrangements of the poetry of Sappho, the perfect librettist of unfulfilled want (which, in fact, provides the play with its closing acapella refrain).
In his directorial notes, Dow says that he sees in Picnic shades of Euripides' Bacchae, with the drifter Hal Carter (a languid Sean Marshall Jr.) the sexy stranger who comes to town and unleashes in the womenfolk hitherto suppressed passions and desires. It's a persuasive reading, not least in terms of the play's strict adherence to the classical unities of time, space and action (the plot of Picnic unfolds over the course of a single Labour Day). And the female members of the cast, most playing well above their actual ages, are collectively superb in capturing the desperation and resentment that festers in women (young and old) suffocating--in different ways--under the oppressiveness of 1950s gender conventions. (Likewise, the men in the cast together embody a social obtuseness to this oppression, which they ignore at their own peril--as the bachelor Howard Bevans, played with just the right mixture of confounded humour by the lanky Jesse Meredith, discovers when he finds himself suddenly engaged to the spinster schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney [a terrific Keely O'Brien].)
And yet this production is by no means a period piece. In preparation for attending it, Richard and I recently rented the 1955 film, starring William Holden and Kim Stanley. It seemed hopelessly dated, and watching a rather long-in-the-tooth Holden spout all those "Hey baby's" was positively cringe-worthy. But under the able direction of Dow, this young cast finds their characters' inner core of "want," and in the process they make this play exciting and new.
Picnic has one more performance tonight, at 8 pm.