KPBS AIRDATE: January 29, 1997
It’s an age-old attraction: men for pretty women and women for dangerous men. That’s at the center of “Picnic,” the 1953 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. But playwright William Inge took the situation even further, adding desperate spinsters, disappointed mothers, intelligent but not-so pretty daughters. All these women living in a sleepy Kansas town, and in walks a handsome, virile, shirtless drifter, who awakens everyone’s libido.
Although critics thought Inge had the potential to join the ranks of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, he never really fulfilled the promise. And his realistic dramas of sad little small-town lives are much less frequently produced.
But Martin Gerrish, founder and artistic director of Octad-One Productions, was never one to shy away from a challenge. Problem is, you need a strong cast to make this work, and there’s, at best, variable talent here.
But there’s no problem with the centerpiece. Jeffrey Jones is a hunk, as Hal Carter should be. He portrays a sexy mix of egotism and insecurity, a braggart and a sweet-talker who is understandably irresistible. As Madge, Peggy Mundell doesn’t match his charisma; she should be the town knockout, with a seething sensuality below the surface. It isn’t there, but the couple’s seminal slow dance achieves just the right degree of animal magnetism.
The other players have their moments: Darlene Cleary as the flip spinster-teacher, in her high-kicking attempted seduction of Hal and her desperate plea for marriage to her wimpy boyfriend Howard, played by Jim Murray in an aptly beleaguered way. Then there’s Layla Stuckey’s second act insouciance and despair as the smart little sister Millie, who’s much cuter than she thinks. And, Mary Ann McKay is consistently solid and credible as the benevolent, neighbor earth-mama, Mrs. Potts.
The overall enterprise isn’t entirely successful; the pace lags perilously at times, and the melodrama is unfortunately underscored with a soppy, sitcom musical background.
But the setting is a triumph — a new permanent space for Octad, perhaps a little off the beaten track, in Lakeside, but easily accessible, with lots of parking, and a lovely lobby sporting local artists’ work. The entry to the theater seating is a bit dark and narrow and the color scheme may be questionable, but the theater is a welcome addition to county performing venues, and a real score for Octad, who deserves a space and a devoted audience.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.