Review: Dated Picnic a formidable challenge for novice actors

Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria
When: To Feb. 22
Rating: 3/5 stars

If there was ever a sign times have changed, it's Picnic, a 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play by William Inge. Sixty-one years ago the drama's sexual frankness was considered cutting edge and risky.

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Today, not so much.

The button-down cultural sensibility of the early fifties is long gone, as a revival by the University of Victoria's theatre department well proves. Today's assembly line of explicit, irony-stuffed entertainment has dulled the impact of Inge's examination of sexual repression in a small town. Picnic comes off as a tepid dish; what was once spicy and scandalous now seems tired and clichèd.

Picnic is the story of a handsome drifter, Hal, who lands in a small American town. Within minutes Hal, played by Jenson Kerr, has doffed his shirt to do yard-work, sending the women-folk into a terrible tizzy.

The play's pivotal characters include Flo, a husband-less mother, her attractive daughter Madge, and her less comely but brainy daughter, Millie. Scraping to survive by running a boarding house for women, Flo's hope for the future is to marry Madge off to Alan, a well-off young man who owns a Cadillac. Unfortunately, this plan is shattered when Madge's libido is awakened by Hal, who's catnip to women despite his trashy upbringing.

The drama's subplot, perhaps more interesting than the main story, concerns Rosemary, a spinster schoolteacher (and secret good-time gal) who's desperate to get married to Howard, a reluctant shop-keeper. Rosemary's final plea to Howard, made after a night of carousing, is genuinely moving — and on Friday night was well-performed by Michelle Morris.

Picnic, directed by Peter McGuire, is a difficult play for a student cast. In this case at least, Inge lacks the depth of fellow post-war playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. It's possible veteran actors could provide a psychological complexity that this production lacks. For novice performers, it's a formidable challenge.

As Hal, Kerr's certainly got the rugged look. He did capture the character's bluff bonhomie; however, the nagging self-doubt that plagues Hall was less successfully conveyed. As Madge, Hayley McCurdy had fine moments when she comforted Hal after their love affair ignites. Yet the sense of sexual awakening that must precede this was little in evidence.

The cast includes Kevin Eade (convincing as Alan the preppy rich boy) Lindsay Curl as Millie, Julie Forrest as Flo and Markus Spodzieja as Howard.

Designer Jonathan Maxwell has created a wonderfully evocative set, dominated by a clapboard house with a weather-worn patina, presumably because Flo lacks a husband and money to maintain it. A splash of visual vivacity is provided by colourful period costumes by Pauline Stynes.

One can see why UVic selected Picnic. It's a large cast play offering plenty of roles for female actors — and there's that sense of simmering adolescent sexuality. However, this is one American stage classic that hasn't aged particularly well.


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