Behavior lawless as snow-flakes, words simple as grass, uncomb’d head, laughter, and naivete . . .
—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
American Theater Company artistic director Will Davis stood up and gave a speech on opening night before letting us see his staging of Picnic, the 1953 drama by William Inge. Davis called his production a “gift” to the playwright’s “ghost,” said it’d been seven years in the making, and worried out loud that “it perhaps is a gift that Inge does not want.” He related Picnic to Inge’s life as a closeted gay man, and to his own experience (recently chronicled in the Reader) of living “at the periphery of my desire.” He even advised us on how to watch the show, saying “it’s built to wash over you.”
Now, it’s true we’re living in a cultural moment when theater makers don’t necessarily trust audiences to draw the right conclusions from their shows. Some politicized artists in particular try to control the message by writing scripts that effectively supply their own talkbacks. (One case in point is Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, a very fine piece of work that nevertheless features a framing device designed to save us from our presumed backwardness regarding gender.) Davis’s talk may’ve had a touch of that condescension to it. But it also looked to me like something more basic: the final plea of a director going through separation anxiety. Davis was acting like the classic parent at the schoolroom door, trying to prolong the moment before he has to surrender his child to life.
He needn’t have worried, and he needn’t have coached us quite so hard either. His production succeeds charmingly, gracefully on its own terms.
I tend to think of Picnic as the play we might’ve got had there been a sequel to Death of a Salesman centered on Willy Loman’s first-born son, Biff. Like Biff, Inge’s hero, Hal Carter, is a good-natured, troubled galoot: a football star at school who’s fallen to drifting over the years, partly due to oedipal trauma but also because the business world he’s expected to join—expects himself to join—is all wrong for him. Hal’s intelligence isn’t in his brains; it’s in his hands, legs, belly, and groin, in his thoughtless genius for lifting stuff and dancing.
Exhausted by serial failures (including a stint in Hollywood that foundered, he claims, when he refused to get his teeth fixed), Hal shows up in the little Kansas town where his old frat brother Alan is a member of the local aristocracy and a possible source of employment. He does chores for Helen Potts, a middle-aged woman chained to her invalid mother. Helen is beguiled by Hal’s sheer man-nature. One of her neighbors, Rosemary, hates it for reminding her of her lost youth, while another, Flo Owens, whose husband deserted her, is mightily suspicious of it. But it’s Flo’s 18-year-old daughter, Madge, who picks up on it profoundly. Universally described and dismissed as pretty, Madge sees into Hal’s suffering and responds in a language they both understand. Their relationship is both muscular and delicate.
And Davis treats it in a manner both muscular and delicate. Presented on a set (by Joe Schermoly) whose raked floor resembles the oilcloth spread you might find on a picnic table, this stylized Picnic opens with very cool music played on a prepared piano by Laura McKenzie (who also acts Helen and others), then moves into a kind of choral recitative performed by the whole company. Now and then it breaks into passages of dance (choreographed by Davis and Evvie Allison) that are not only articulate in expressing character but so appropriate to Hal and Madge that I was amazed, when I looked it up, to find no record of Picnic: The Ballet.
Davis has cast some roles nontraditionally, most notably the leads: a woman, Molly Brennan, plays Hal (comically, powerfully) opposite gender-fluid Malic White as Madge. I know that makes a useful point about the fluidity of lots of things, not least of all love. Yet what’s striking in performance is how little difference such permutations make to the essential dynamic of two people who live through their bodies. The fact that Brennan and White are creative and life partners adds a certain frisson to things; it made me wonder, though, why White has chosen to give us a Madge whose reticence runs to almost catatonia at times. The last time I saw White onstage with Brennan, the work was fierce. v