Palm Beach Dramaworks opened its production of Picnic on October 9, 2015.
A handsome stranger drifts into a small Kansas town and awakens the dormant dreams and repressed desires of a group of lonely women in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
William Hayes directed a cast that included Kelly Gibson, Merlin Huff, Patti Gardner, Maren Searle, Elizabeth Dimon, Margery Lowe, Taylor Miller, Michael McKeever, Julie Rowe, Natalia Coego and Riley Anthony
John Thomason reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
…rather than attempt to reproduce a more propulsive Picnic for impatient 21st century audiences, director William Hayes’ season-opening interpretation at Palm Beach Dramaworks deftly colors around the edges of the main storyline, spelunking the script’s peripheral action for new revelations about Inge’s mid-century, middle-class, Middle-American strivers. It’s the same Picnic, only this time with a more egalitarian sense of melancholy.
There is no actual picnic in Picnic; the three-act structure is divided between Labor Day morning, sunset of the same day, and the following morning—time enough for everybody’s paradigms to shift. Picnic is about people desperate to prove they are more than their surfaces suggest, and the second act marvelously crystallizes the emotional maelstroms underneath those facades.
Hayes’ direction is at its most masterful here, starting when dancey jazz licks emanate from the Labor Day party (composed for this production, by the way, by expert sound designer Steve Brush). Everybody moves to the groove, but not everyone can keep the beat. Millie, who has shed her tomboy couture for a feminine dress to lure Hal’s gaze, struggles to pick up his urban choreography, which proves effortless for Madge: The glamorous people find themselves in perfect sync, while Millie sequesters herself near the outhouse with a bottle of whiskey.
Searle beautifully, subtly inhabits Millie’s aching frustration, effectively embodying someone who is insecure in her own flesh but whose mind races faster than anyone else onstage. But it’s Lowe’s finest hour: She has arguably never been better, discovering in her vulnerable educator a kind of virtuosic sadness that feels like the beating heart of Inge’s story.
Hayes also draws excellent supporting work as usual from Hayes also draws excellent supporting work as usual from Gardner, who exudes a world-weary dignity as the Owens matriarch, and Elizabeth Dimon, offering warmth and comic relief as Flo’s next-door neighbor, Helen. Julie Rowe, Natalia Coego and Riley Anthony fill out the cast, and they’re all fine, but their characters are as unnecessary as sweaters on an August afternoon.
Huff’s is the hardest performance to judge. He certainly looks and acts the part...There’s an intelligence in Huff’s eyes that he shares with a young Paul Newman… Consciously or not, Huff’s performance seems so emulative of Newman that it’s almost distracting; it doesn’t help that his only stilted moment in the show happens be his climactic exit from the stage. Because it feels false, Gibson’s subsequent breakdown feels unwarranted. Hopefully both actors will grow more comfortable with the finale in the weeks to come.
The effect of the leads’ downplaying ultimately allows for the brighter shine of this marquee’s other bulbs. Unlike, for instance, the 1955 film adaptation, this Picnic is more ensemble piece than star vehicle. We feel the hurt and pain and innocence lost for everyone involved, and it’s a commendable experience—even if it takes a while to get there.
Be sure click through and read the entire review from Lacunae Musing:
It is a Pulitzer Prize winning play, well worth seeing again, and it demands careful orchestration to bring a modern audience into yesteryear and make this still relevant.
Hal is played by Merlin Huff, in his PBD debut, parading his manly presence around the stage like a badge, stomping and posturing, yet inwardly feeling totally insecure. It is a difficult role as Inge provides for little nuance and character development. He is a free spirit, who is yearning to become a “success” which nothing in his dysfunctional background has prepared him to achieve.
His friend, Alan, is convincingly played by Taylor Miller, also making his PBD debut, with his wholesomeness, and innate confidence from having grown up in the “right” family and following their expectations, only conscious of Madge’s desirability as a beauty.
The key role of Flo, who is trying to orchestrate the lives of her two daughters, hoping that they will marry well, is outstandingly played by PBD veteran Patti Gardner, capturing her anxiety that her daughters should not have disappointing lives as she’s had.
Margery Lowe’s performance as Rosemary is terrific. She is a woman who has had failed romances in the past and knows she is on the precipice of spinsterhood, especially after seeing the young people she is surrounded by, a desperation Lowe practically breathes from every pore.
Interesting that Dramaworks’ season opens with this classic play, as it did last year with Our Town, a play with which it shares many characteristics, simple but direct fundamental themes unfolding in a small-town setting, superbly staged and acted. Clearly this where Dramaworks excels, in the details of the staging.
This is a huge undertaking for a regional theatre, flawlessly directed by Bill Hayes who obviously has a great rapport with his actors and behind-the scenes technicians – a promising start to Dramaworks’ new season.
Rod Stafford Hagwood wrote for The Sun-Sentinel:
There is a freshness, a sort of right-now-ness with Palm Beach Dramaworks' production of Picnic… at Dramaworks, director William Hayes has skimmed all the melodrama off the top and revealed something that reads truer, feels timeless and is much funnier than memory serves.
Dramaworks' Picnic is a master class in pacing and acting. Granted, there is a dropped moment ramping up to the climax, but by then, you're all in and let the small stuff go. In the first act, you begin to feel anything can happen, that everything is on the table, that maybe the director will just up and change the outcome in the final act. If things congeal just a tad before the end, well, the momentum carries through and the characters resonate enough to see us through satisfactorily.
That aside, this production is a revelation. That much is evident to anyone, as is the top-notch design from the creative team, particularly Michael Amico's sets and Steve Brush's sound. What is not so apparent is how this production manages to effortlessly engage an audience in these attention-deficit times for three acts over two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Leslie Gay Streeter wrote for The Palm Beach Post:
The production, directed by William Hayes, seamlessly portrays that tension bubbling under the pleasantries of 1950s Midwest life while making the familiar, Pulitzer Prize-winning text instantly relevant.
Most plays have The Part, which is not necessarily the lead, but nevertheless is the show-stopping, beating heart of the action, the part audiences remember and that actors clamor for. Rosemary is The Part in “Picnic”, and Lowe is simply magical, the undisputed stand-out among really good performers… beneath the slightly too-loud laugh is a woman whose dreams of love and validation have gotten her a room in a boarding house and a front seat to the bright possibilities of others. Her reactions are increasingly alarming, and Lowe manages to make Rosemary’s outbursts the rising panic of a woman who deserved better, rather than just an old maid’s screeching.
The entire production is solid, from wardrobe supervisor Omayra Diaz Rodriguez’s great costumes and brilliant wigs, to scenic designer Michael Amico’s set, just two houses, as dusty, sturdy and unchanging as the people inside. Hayes has said that “Picnic” was chosen because audiences were familiar with the title if not the specifics. It’s more than worth re-examining.
Jeffery Bruce reviewed for Talkin’ Broadway:
The first thing one sees when entering the Dramaworks theatre is one of the most beautiful sets, by Michael Amico, ever designed. Just superb. As the play progresses, the technical attributes keep on coming: Brian O'Keefe's costumes are of the period and sewn with such care, you can see the craftsmanship involved. Just superb, again.
There is a distinct lack of chemistry between Mr. Huff and Ms. Gibson... The actors seem to be talented and in time, I am sure, will gain the confidence they need to convey the yearning and loneliness so greatly needed.
Margery Lowe gives one of the two performance highlights of the evening. At first I was confused by her take on the role. She seems like a faded chorine (aka "flapper") desperately trying, against all of her many protestations, to hold on to the last vestiges of her long-gone youth. Flitting around the stage like an uncaged bird, Lowe broke my heart in the memorable scene when Rosemary, literally, begs her beau Howard (Michael McKeever in a wonderfully modulated performance) to marry her. I am not used to seeing these two roles played by younger actors*, but Mr. Hayes made a choice to cast younger and it definitely works in his favor. The other acting highlight is Taylor Miller as Alan. Not one false move, not one hint of "acting," his is a relaxed, comfortable, and well-thought out interpretation.
*(Ed. note – “younger?” Eileen Heckart was 34, and Arthur O’Connell was 44 when they originated the roles in 1953. Just sayin’.)
Patti Gardner as Madge's mom is lovely, determined, and well-aware of both her daughters' sensibilities. Gardner is one of our finest actresses in South Florida and it's nice to see her cast against type (she's a beautiful woman) and for her to run with it. Elizabeth Dimon, playing Helen the woman next door, is unaffected and lovable. She always is (when the role calls for it.) And then there's Millie. The toughest role in the play, it is performed by Maren Searle. Starting the play off in braids and an endearing diffidence, Searle is quite convincing as the 16-year-old tomboy of Mr. Inge's pen. Irascible, intelligent and very, very smart, her Millie is ripe for disappointment. The problem is when she transforms out of jeans and pigtails into a dress, a soft hairdo, and the confusion of, well, a 16 year old. She looks her actual age and, while I was initially off-put, she ultimately won me over.
Palm Beach Dramaworks presents its production of Picnic through November 8, 2015.
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