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Theatre in Review: Picnic/Come Back, Little Sheba (Transport Group at The Gym and Judson)

Michele Pawk, Ginna Le Vine. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

In his 1950s Broadway heyday, the playwright William Inge enjoyed a success second only to that of Tennessee Williams. As was the case with Williams, the succeeding decades were not so kind, and Inge, who killed himself, remains underrated today. This is a great injustice, as you can see for yourself if you make your way to The Gym at Judson, where Transport Group is presenting in repertory Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba. If these productions don't convince you that Inge is one of our finest playwrights, nothing will.

Inge probed beneath the prosaic surface of everyday Midwestern life, finding unfathomable loneliness and longing. His people are plain and plainspoken, "nice" people with mundane occupations, yet they are driven by powerful, often self-destructive, forces. Picnic focuses on an ad hoc community of women in a small Kansas town who are roiled by the arrival of a handsome stranger. Helen, who, in her 60s, still lives with her mother, hires Hal, a drifter, to do some yardwork. The sight of the impressively muscled young man performing his chores draws plenty of interest, not all of it welcome, from the ladies next door: Flo Owens, a widow with two daughters, doesn't like riffraff hanging about; Rosemary, a self-described old-maid schoolteacher, is frankly hostile. But neither can look away, either.

Indeed, desire is in the air, whether it is wanted or not. Flo is grooming her elder daughter, Madge, the town beauty, to reel in Alan, a scion of the town's wealthiest family -- and is disturbed to see that Madge and Hal are instinctively drawn to each other. Complicating matters further is the fact that Hal has arrived in town in search of Alan, his former college fraternity brother, in hopes of getting a steady job. Hal, who at first appeared to be a temporary nuisance, may be there to stay, potentially upsetting Flo's plan for securing her daughter's future.

Madge, who works at the dime store, isn't all that bright -- not like her tomboy sister, Millie, who reads novels that scandalize Flo and is already laying plans for a career as a writer in New York -- but she is smart enough to know that she doesn't really belong among Alan's sophisticated friends. She is quietly distressed that Flo wants her to use her not-inconsiderable beauty as a bargaining chip. "A pretty girl hasn't long, only a few years," Flo reminds her. "What good is it to be pretty?" wonders Madge, already aware that Alan loves her like a collector prizes a piece of Meissen porcelain.

Over the course of a single day, the flirtation between Hal and Madge will trigger a series of explosive consequences, all of which are detailed with infinite sensitivity and perception by a fine company under the direction of Jack Cummings III. David T. Patterson, in his Off Broadway debut, has plenty of sexual magnetism as Hal, but he also makes clear that the character is foolish, a braggart, and a magnet for trouble. He displays sizzling chemistry with the Madge of Ginna Le Vine, another Off Broadway debutante, who finds her character's troubled center, her sense that her life is being planned for her without her consent. Their Act II seduction scene thoroughly fulfills Inge's vision of sexual attraction as both something of a miracle and a violently destabilizing force.

Even better is Emily Skinner as Rosemary, who swears she lives for her independence, yet who is simmering with unrelieved erotic tension. She excels in her two big scenes -- when, her inhibitions weakened by a little whisky, she tries to dance with Hal and ends up clawing at him, ripping his shirt, and, later, demanding in a manner both imperious and desperately needy, that her steady boyfriend, Howard (an excellent John Cariani, a master salesman suddenly put on the spot), make an honest woman of her. ("You gotta marry me, Howard!" is one of the most devastating lines in the playwright's body of work.) Nobody understood the corrosive effects of loneliness better than Inge, and Emily's account of her spinster schoolteacher life -- the grind of work, the ladies' lunches, the sheer absence of anything to look forward to -- is presented with savage exactitude; Skinner's rendition of it is her finest work to date.

There are also excellent contributions from Michele Pawk as Flo, who married for love and lived to regret it, and is horrified to see history repeating itself with Madge; Hannah Elless as Millie, who knows the only solution for her is to get up and get out; Rowan Vickers as Alan, whose warm feelings for Hal begin to curdle as he sees his hold on Madge loosening; and Heather MacRae as Helen, who delivers the coup de grâce, reminding Flo that, when she was young, she was no stronger than Madge when it came to the pull of passion.

Even as the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie flails, in part because of its rehearsal room aesthetic, here Cummings succeeds with a similar minimalist approach. Dane Laffrey's set consists of a half-dozen metal porch chairs set against a series of unpainted pine walls arranged in a diagonal formation. Of course, the designer has the assistance of excellent period costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter (especially Rosemary's detailed ensembles) and expert lighting by R. Lee Kennedy. The sound design, by Miles Polaski, provides solid reinforcement for Michael John LaChiusa's incidental music (which relies on electric guitar chords to strike the right melancholic mood) and also creates key effects, including a small explosion and the sound of a dance band in rehearsal.

Most of all, Picnic has a director who understands Inge's play from the inside out and a gifted cast that is alive to the script's tiniest nuances. I've seen three or four productions of Picnic, and this is the finest by far.

If Come Back, Little Sheba is a little less successful, it's not entirely the company's fault. The play was the very definition of a nervous hit, earning good reviews and hanging on at the box office for several months before closing after 190 performances, a not-very-impressive run at the time. The situation is borderline dreary, focusing on Doc, a middle-aged chiropractor, and Lola, his dumpy, restless wife. Doc and Lola were once young and beautiful and riven with desire; after she got pregnant, he dropped out of medical school so they could marry. He subsequently hit the bottle hard, taking his marriage and career to the brink. Now he is in AA and once again earning a passable living, but something in the marriage has died. Lola prowls their untidy home in her housecoat, yearning for the little dog (referenced in the title) that ran away. Doc can't bear to hear any mention of the past, when the future seemed so bright.

Once again, youthful desire threatens to destroy a stable, if unhappy, household. Marie, a pretty college student who boards with Doc and Lola, is engaged to a young businessman from back home, but meanwhile is carrying on a fiery affair with Turk, an Adonis-like college athlete. Lola is obsessed, almost voyeuristically so, with this young romance, but it infuriates Doc, who quietly carries a torch for Marie. As in Picnic, such sexual tensions can only be contained for so long before they break out into the open in ways that are both embarrassing and ugly.

Come Back, Little Sheba is tricky to stage, especially the first act, which details Lola's boring, static existence to an almost numbing degree. The situation is textbook Freud, laid out too baldly; in a nod to Susan Glaspell, the play could be titled Barely Suppressed Desires. And the little Sheba trope -- Lola has dreams about her that a freshman psych major wouldn't have trouble deciphering -- represents a too-blatant grab for the audience's sympathy.

In addition, the performances don't quite rise to the level of Picnic. There's an element of sadness missing in MacRae's Lola, a sense of a young girl trapped in an older woman's body, which made S. Epatha Merkerson's performance so wrenching in the 2008 Broadway revival. Also, Patterson and Elless are guilty of indicating as Turk and Marie, the onstage attitudinizing a clear sign that they haven't fully connected with their characters. (They do display a strong chemistry, however.) Most regrettable is the decision to triple-cast Cariani as a series of servicemen -- a postman, milkman, and messenger -- a comic stunt that proves jarringly out of place.

Still, Joseph Kolinski catches the turmoil raging under the surface of Doc's character, and he and MacRae get full value out of the brutal Act II encounter in which Doc, having fallen off the wagon, bares his fury and disgust at Lola, unburdening himself of decades of disappointment. It is one of the cruelest scenes in twentieth-century drama, and neither actor shies away from its implications; even in a not-fully realized production, it's enough to leave you shaken. Equally affecting is the morning-after scene, in which a tearful Doc reveals his almost childlike dependency on Lola.

Laffrey's set design uses the same pine walls, but this time he fills the space with mismatched furniture -- a sign of Doc and Lola's less-than-prosperous lifestyle -- that delineates the parlor, dining room, and kitchen. Hostetter's costumes and Kennedy's lighting are both solid contributions. Polaski's sound design includes a number of radio broadcasts that are both evocative and crucial to the action.

Even given the disparity between the two productions, both are eminently worth seeing for several reasons, not least because, experienced together, they amplify one's understanding of Inge's themes. Transport Group has done fine work with the playwright's work before, with its 2007 revival of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. With these two productions, it's fair to say the company "owns" Inge, in the sense of understanding what makes his work so special. I wonder if there's a revival of Bus Stop in our future. -- David Barbour

(10 April 2017)

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