THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

'Picnic' serves up '50s nostalgia, but with an edge

Delilah Kistler and Aidan Kane in ''Picnic'' at Stoneham Theatre. Delilah Kistler and Aidan Kane in ''Picnic'' at Stoneham Theatre. (Neil reynolds)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / April 14, 2009
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STONEHAM - In the 1950s, William Inge was ranked with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as a preeminent American playwright. In the half-century since, however, his star has declined so much that he's generally remembered, if at all, for the film adaptations of his work rather than for the plays themselves.

Perhaps that's because his version of 1950s America uncomfortably straddles the two reigning cliches: fresh-faced sock-hop nostalgia, on the one hand, and resistance to soul-sucking repression on the other. Midwestern innocents who have wild sex? Apparently that just short-circuits the modern brain.

It doesn't help that some of Inge's slang has dated badly. What young actor today could talk about "dames" or call another kid a "goon" with a straight face? As the current production of "Picnic" at the Stoneham Theatre makes (sometimes painfully) clear, it's almost impossible to pull off.

There are some subtle pleasures in this staging of Inge's sad, comic, brusquely sentimental tale of a former college football star turned drifter and the small-town women he discombobulates one Labor Day weekend. Most of those pleasures come from the skilled actresses playing the grown-up women.

There's Sarah Newhouse, spiky and wryly funny as the schoolteacher who's trying to get her longtime beau to pony up a ring; Leigh Barrett, brave but faintly desperate as the teacher's wistful spinster pal; and Lisa Foley, tough and warm as an older neighbor harassed by her meanly aging mother. And, especially, there's Dee Nelson, who's at once tense and luminous as the mother struggling to protect her two growing girls, the prom-queen-pretty Madge and her bookish tomboy kid sister, Millie.

Oh, but see? "Bookish tomboy"? That's not an accepted mid-century cliche. And yet that's Millie: one second reading Carson McCullers, the next chasing barefoot after a taunting paperboy. Lively, curious, just starting to see how trapped she is in the life she's landed in, she may be the most interesting character in the play.

At first that's hard to see at Stoneham, however, because Emily Graham-Handley sounds more like a 21st-century smart-aleck, raised on Facebook and "Gossip Girl," than like a kid who's too smart for her own good in 1950s Kansas. Graham-Handley does relax into the role, and she's got enough presence and chops to make us enjoy watching her do it, but director Caitlin Lowans should have helped her find a more authentic emotional tone and physical style for the period.

Such problems are even graver for Aidan Kane, a slender, sloe-eyed, miscast actor whose Hal Carter doesn't look as if he ever played touch football, much less college ball. He seems a sweet enough kid, but without a simmering physical presence in this part, "Picnic" loses its center.

Lowans's direction doesn't help, especially in the larger group scenes: She repeatedly ranges the actors in a straight line across Charlie Morgan's quasi-realistic set of dingy clapboard houses, giving us nowhere to focus. Scenes with only a couple of characters fare better - there's only one place to look - but since "Picnic" is as much about the complex relationships among the older women as it is about the young couples, it loses much of its interest and depth when all the larger scenes come across as an undifferentiated mass.

By the same token, scenes that should provide an emotional climax are flattened and softened. Only the melodramatic ending really hits, but after the missed points of earlier conflicts, it comes across as forced.

"Picnic" is an interesting choice for a suburban theater like Stoneham: comfortably nostalgic enough to attract its core audience, but with enough of an edge to keep things interesting. But it's hard to say whether someone who'd never seen an Inge play before would come away understanding his complex appeal.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

Related

PICNIC Play by William Inge

Directed by: Caitlin Lowans. Set, Charlie Morgan. Costumes, Seth Bodie. Lights, Christopher Ostrom. Sound, David Wilson.

At: Stoneham Theatre, Stoneham, through April 19. Tickets, $40, 781-279-2200, www.stonehamtheatre.org