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Washington Post

Nothing Can Spoil This 'Picnic'
By Michael Toscano
Thursday, January 10, 2002; Page VA08

The constraints on the lives of women who inhabit a small Kansas town in post-war, pre-feminist America are explored in the American Century Theater's revival of William Inge's early 1950s potboiler, "Picnic." The story may be archaic, but the characters are recognizable because most of them remain in society today. They are skillfully brought to life in this production.

The cramped and generally inadequate performing space of Arlington's Theatre on the Run contributes to the dense, claustrophobic atmosphere Inge created amid the wheat fields and front porches of the American heartland in the mid-20th century. Designed by Eric Grims, two houses inhabited by women share a back yard that is physically confining, with just a hint of the rolling fields and limitless sky beyond. That suits the story of lives so sterile that they can be disrupted by the appearance of a shirtless man and a bottle of booze.

Widow Flo Owens (Sherri S. Heren) has two daughters, the beautiful 18-year-old Madge (Jeanne Dillon) and the younger, brainy tomboy Millie (Mary Rasmussen). Flo has high hopes for her girls, which in this time and place means Madge must marry college-bound Alan Seymour (Jason Lott), scion of a well-to-do family. Madge may protest, "I'm only 18!" But world-weary Flo admonishes her, "And next year you'll be 19, then 20, then 21 and then you'll be 40!" Just like mom.

Meanwhile, Flo's neighbors and boarders, all women without men, seem resigned to unfulfilled lives. Enter the stranger, a self-absorbed Adonis named Hal (Peter Cassidy) who soon loses his shirt, causing the women to lose their senses. All but the grimly determined Flo, that is. Flo puts herself physically between Hal and Madge at one point, like a mother bear guarding her cub from a predator. The others are only too willing to be preyed upon, especially the pitiful schoolmarm Rosemary Sydney (Kathryn Fuller). Even Millie, whose intelligence and dreams of a writing career promise an escape that does not depend on a man, transforms herself from tomboy to ingenue.

Highlighting forgotten American plays is part of the mission of the American Century Theater. The once popular "Picnic" has been on its way toward oblivion in recent years despite some meaty roles, equal to characters created by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, two of Inge's contemporaries whose artistic legacies now outshine his contributions.

It's not clear if Inge wrote a dark comedy or a light drama, and that's a challenge for the cast members, all of whom successfully navigate between bitter and sweet. Director Steven Scott Mazzola has the men, including the oafish, comical Howard (Kevin Adams), who brings a bottle to the picnic and leaves with an unwanted bride, act unnatural around the women. The men are either self-conscious and awkward or posturing, which highlights the fact that a system in which women depend on men for their status and security isn't all that great for the guys, either.

Lott is outstanding in the thinly written role of college-bound Alan. A bundle of nervous tics in the presence of women, he nevertheless summons the guts to physically challenge the much-larger Hal as the inevitable attraction between the "Shirtless One" and Madge becomes obvious. As the young Millie, Rasmussen is a restless brat one minute and a fresh-faced beauty the next, changed by the presence of the macho Hal. The most riveting moments come from Fuller, as her Rosemary Sydney shows the depths of her despair by begging the reluctant Howard to marry her.

The only flaws are technical: cartoonish sound effects and ragged lighting at the edges of the tiny set that casts shadows on actors as they move about. Otherwise, this "Picnic" is complete, even without the ants.

The American Century Theater will present "Picnic" at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run in Arlington, through Feb. 2. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Jan. 12, 19, 20 and 26 and Feb. 2. For tickets or information, call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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City Paper

Review ofPicnic

Picnic As dated as William Inge's plays surely are, they still glow with a love of people--and the concomitant sadness resulting from devotion to such unreliable beings. 1953's Picnic, which is set in small-town Kansas, uses that backdrop to emphasize that midcentury, Midwestern, far-horizon endlessness of possibilities, coupled with the intense claustrophobia that comes from everyone's neighbors knowing everyone's business. The folks in this burg know who they're expected to be--the pretty girl or the smart girl, the country-club businessman or the little shop-owner, the lonely widow or the spinster schoolteacher. But left to themselves, left to their hopes and doubts, they're not sure they fit the parts they've been assigned.

In the American Century Theater's uneven but ultimately winning production, directed by Steven Scott Mazzola, the archetypal pretty girl is 18-year-old Madge Owens (Jeanne Dillon), and her younger sister, Millie (Mary Rasmussen), is a smart girl. Their single mother, Flo (Sheri S. Herren), in her soft-spoken but forceful way, is trying to shepherd Madge into a good marriage with Alan Seymour (Jason Lott), a clean-cut, conventional scion of the country-club crowd.

On a Labor Day weekend in the late '40s or early '50s, their steady world lurches when a swaggering stud named Hal Carter (Peter Cassidy) steps onto the scene, shirtless, doing manly chores for the Owens' neighbor Mrs. Potts (Rhonda Hill). Also knocked off balance by Hal's arrival is the Owens' boarder, the lonely local high school typing teacher Rosemary Sydney (Kathryn Fuller), to whom sousy beau Howard Bevens (Kevin Adams) seems at once all the more inconsequential, and all the more crucial, to her long-term happiness.

These folks' dreams and dreads all come to a head on the evening of the Owens-Potts Labor Day picnic. The cumulative impact of the production is akin to what Millie tells Hal she gets from reading books--"kind of warm inside and sad and amused, all at the same time."

Like a breeze across a late-summer plain, Picnic is a stirring reminder that in life and love, the only thing scarier than being held is being held back.

Theater on the Run 3700 Four Mile Run, Arlington. Friday, Saturday, Wednesday, & Thursday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2:30 p.m. $17-$24 to Feb. 2 (703) 553-8782

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