Revivals of plays have a unique sense of purpose. Unlike vintage movies, which can be viewed any time, performances of plays vanish at the final curtain call. Only through revivals can audiences get a sense of the live experience the playwright intended.
Not every play deserves a revival, of course. Thousands of modern-era shows, from closed-out-of-town losers to Tony award winners, have been lost to time. Many are rife with outdated social norms; many are just plain uninteresting even as historical record. Only a minority receive full revival productions and an even smaller slice merit them.
All this is prelude to determine whether William Inge’s Picnic, in which Paul Newman made his Broadway debut, has any interesting points to make today. Are we being shown the good old days or told we’ve come a long way?
The 1953 midwestern saga, from the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, focuses on the importance of physical appearance and maintaining social status. It features rigidly defined gender roles, including a portrayal of spinsterhood as the ultimate female failure. So we’ve most assuredly come a long way. But we still have quite a way to go. And this Odyssey production’s black cast reinforces more than one of the ways.
The “beautiful sister,” Madge (Mattie Harris Lowe in the performance I saw; double cast with Caitlin O’Grady, who played friend Christine) is dating a country club member and college boy, Alan (Ahkei Togun). Hal (Monti D. Washington), a college friend of Alan’s, shows up for a visit.
Hal is a hunk but also a college dropout. He starts doing odd jobs for Mrs. Helen Potts (Rosemary Thomas), who lives next door to Madge. Despite herself, Madge is attracted to Hal, but so is her 15-year-old, shall we say less beautiful, sister Millie (Symphony Canady). Of course, Madge and Millie’s mother Flo (Yolanda Snowball) doesn’t think Hal is good enough for either of her daughters. She reminds Madge, who is about to enter college on a scholarship, that she is 18 now, but soon will be “19, 20, 21 and 40.”
Flo rents out a room to never-married Rosemary (Sydney A. Mason) who has been trying to move her beau Howard (Derrick Parker) toward marriage. Her cringe-worthy entreaties feel embarrassing, especially compared to Madge’s easy attractiveness.
Factor in newspaper boy Bomber (Rogelio Douglas III), who also has a crush on Madge, and the message is clear: unattractive girls are destined for lesser lives than beauties.
The play’s recasting makes the point per se that in the 1950s few blacks would never have lived the lives shown onstage, with country clubs, college and participation in town functions. It more finely hones the edge of their fears: financial uncertainty and potential shame, whether as a fallen or unmarried woman.
Director John Farmanesh–Bocca organizes the complicated comings and goings efficiently, but the forces guiding love and upward mobility are so dated that it sometimes feels harder for the audience to get engaged than it is for Rosemary. As the characters prepare for the annual town picnic, the stakes don’t feel terribly high. Will Madge choose a low earner over a high one? Will Rosemary fulfill her only dream, getting an unwilling man to marry her? Who made the best pie?
Only in post-picnic Act Two do the stakes raise and the modern casting raise the stakes significantly higher than the original. Hal is accused of a crime and must flee the police. As a black man, the dangers are always more dire than finding another job in a new town.
The two-hour production is lush, with a great set by scenic designer Frederica Nascimento. The actors give their all. But the ’50s tropes weigh heavy on Picnic. It never loses its period-piece sensibilities, even with the Odyssey’s well-intentioned casting refresh and slight update to the ’60s, as illustrated by music from Aretha Franklin, Booker T & the MGs, Otis Redding and others. In short, despite obvious dedication and effort, Picnic doesn’t quite make the transition to must-see revival.
Picnic runs through May 28 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. Show times are Saturdays at 8:00pm Sundays at 2:00pm through May 28. In addition, there will be two performances on Wednesdays at 8:00pm: May 10 and May 17; three performances on Fridays at 8:00pm: April 28, May 19 and May 26; and three performances on Mondays at 8:00pm: April 17, April 24 and May 8.. Tickets range from $25–$40 and are available here.