By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
When you hear the sound of a train way beyond the corn and wheat fields, there is yearning and wist- fulness in the hearts of those left behind.
Knowing all this, William Inge places that whistle in the opening scene of Picnic, his 1953 Pulitzer-Prize winning play now on stage at the Pierson Playhouse.
The playwright, himself a Midwesterner, sets his drama in rural Kansas, where men and women, old and young, are living their lives, and we are privy to their dreams, fears, and most of all their desire for love.
The action swirls around the annual Labor Day picnic. For the young folks, the picnic promises an afternoon of flirting and possible romance for the Owens girls: Madge (Krystyna Ahlers) the older “pretty” one and Millie (Jessica Mason), her younger sister, who is smart, but envious of Madge’s beauty.
For the older folks, romance is a distant memory. Flo Owens (Sue Hardie), the girls’ mother, is alone, her husband long gone. Helen Potts (Laura Goldstein), who lives in the adjacent house, is also alone, her mother having forced her to annul her marriage. Now Flo is driven by her hope to see Madge marry the college-educated Alan (Spencer Rodman), who will be going back to school.
The characters’ stasis is naturally upended,in this case by Hal Carter, an impulsive young man who has seen harsh times. He’s drifted from place to place, reform school and a few colleges, where he was hailed a football hero. His father was a sot; his mother couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Confident with braggadocio, Hal blasts through everybody’s life.
Inge is careful not to tilt his hand, rather, content to introduce a set of fully three-dimensional characters for us to observe.
While the play may seem dated to us 60 years later, the themes resound.
Loneliness sops all joy. Isolation threatens to limit the choices for the young woman who seems trapped by the conventions and small-town decorum. Madge feels unseen, smothered by her beauty. “The only way I can prove I’m alive is when I look in the mirror,” she says.
Millie is sure she’ll never find love and vows to go to New York and be famous, so she’ll never have to fall in love.
Youth looms large in Picnic. Even for confirmed spinster Rosemary Sydney (Wendy Taubin), who rents a room in the Owens’ house. While she brags about not having a man, she ultimately breaks down when she realizes that this may be it. Her desperation snares her longtime boyfriend, Howard Bevans (Manfred Hofer), a local businessman, who, too, has accepted that this is all he can be and has ruled out marriage.
As the play progresses, each character sheds defenses and pretenses to expose the essence of the human condition. Hal is the catalyst; these folks have discovered their truth.
Picnic falls in the category of Realism. Theatre Palisades members Sherman Wayne and William Pitcher have designed a setting that is both tangible and real, allowing us to focus on what is happening to the characters.
The cast found their rhythm after the first act and, remembering that this was opening night, are sure to coalesce even more.
Nicholas Dostal’s Hal is appropriately all bravado and athleticism. Dangerously sexy, his fluid dance in Act III with Madge was positively scandalous.
Speaking of dancing, choreographed by Drew Fitzsimmons, the dance sequence that brought most of the cast together was a welcome interlude. The drunken hijinks between Hal and Howard kept the audience laughing.
The play, directed by Sherman Wayne with assistance from producer Martha Hunter, runs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. through February 19 at Pierson Playhouse, 941 Temescal Canyon Road. For tickets, call (3310) 454-1970 or visit theatrepalisades.org.