The small American town has been the setting for numerous American classics, in literature and in theater; Our Town, To Kill a Mockingbird and William Inge's Picnic. Artists appear to be drawn to the realism and commonness of the small-town, all-American setting. This weekend and next a small snapshot of a midwestern community develops in Picnic, directed by Associate Professor of Theater Paul Moser.
The setting of Picnic on stage is unique; in the round on the stage of Hall Auditorium. Hall, a proscenium setting normally reserved for grand scale shows converts into a black box theater. As the frame falls away the audience is drawn magnetically into the shared yard of Flo Owens (senior Becky Phillips) and Mrs. Helen Potts (junior Sonia Tatinov). Soft sunshine filters down onto the grass through imagined trees, birds chirp softly in the background. Two white clapboard houses stand across from each other and lawn furniture decorates the yard.The setting is incredibly normal and comfortable.
It's Labor Day in 1952, the day of the picnic. Flo Owens works on preparing her daughter Madge's dress while she gossips and chats with Mrs. Potts and Rosemary Sidney, the schoolteacher boarder played by Elizabeth Holland Baron. Madge, (first-year Jessica Umphress) the prettiest girl in town who all the town boys admire, manicures her nails. Madge's younger sister, Millie (senior Heather Gautschi) an intellectual tomboy of sorts, smokes the secretive cigarette while reading her newest book. Everything is just as usual, just as the last Labor Day probably came and went. Except for the presence of Mrs. Potts' new young boarder, Hal Carter.
Played by sophomore Carlos Bustamante, Hal drifts into town and takes work with Mrs. Potts. A college fraternity brother of Madge's steady, Alan (Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone), Hal has come to meet up with Alan again. During his stay the whole neighborhood notices the attractive stranger. Mrs. Potts is proud of her handsome new resident and smiles happily. Flo and Rosemary are appalled (but also a little interested in a typical neighborhood gossip's way) when they see Hal working without his shirt. The trouble begins when Madge also notices Hal and he too takes note of her.
Bustamante's performance as Hal is energetic and fitting. Hal is down on his luck, but still parades an optimistic and enthusiastic attitude. Bustamante's performance captures the ambiance and excitement of the drifter, demonstrating the thrill that a man such as Hal would present to the bored and innocent girl and her 1950s town. Bustamante's Hal has a charming grin and a twinkle of wildness in eyes. When the situation worsens and the townspeople turn on Hal, Bustamante brings forth the dark side of his character. After being blamed in a large confrontation for getting Millie sick with whiskey, an awkward silence befalls the stage and Bustamante's performance commun-icates the tension. His range of affect is strong, from friendly to stormy to passionate.
The chemistry between Hal and Madge is at times electric. As they dance together in the yard other characters comment that perhaps they were meant to dance together. Most of this energy is created less through their actual dancing and more through their acting; long stares and small glances linger in the air between them. Umphress is well cast in appearance, looking the part with loose blonde curls and a doll's face. She plays the sullen and unsatisfied Madge well. However, when performing with Bustamante, her performance does not always equal his. Intimate moments may feel unbalanced in romantic excitement and danger.
The performances of the other actors culminate well to demonstrate the characters of the midwestern community. Notable were Gautschi's Millie, whose comedy is as endearing and cute as her jealousy of Madge's beauty is angry and frustrated. Ellison-Gladstone as Alan pulls a creepy switch in Act III from the upright honorable boyfriend to a vicious angry rich boy turning against his old friend. Playing the maternal role excellently is Phillips as Flo. She encourages Madge to seize Alan as her best chance at happiness and security. When Alan and Madge walk out onto the porch it's Flo who begins the singing of the bridal march. Flo's broken marriage is only a subtle subplot to the main story but Phillips manages to skillfully and unobtrusively bring her character's story and motivation to the audience's attention.
Director Moser describes Inge's Picnic as a show that highlights a pursuit for "idealized Beauty," and the jealousies amongst women. However Inge's point, which emerges most clearly from Picnic is that everyone on stage wears some sort of mask that hides their true feelings and desperation. Throughout Picnic those masks disintegrate and fall off until all the characters are revealed in one way or another. (Baron's scene as Rosemary begging, on her knees, for her beau Howard to marry her is just one good example.) The deconstruction of the ultra-normal small town and its residents is dramatic and disturbing. When the audience is sitting close enough that they could be leaning on the Owens' picket fence the effect is potent.
Picnic presents its message in a familiar setting; at first it all seems so homey and comfortable. However as the story progresses dark emotional clouds emerge in the sky above the actors. The performers carry the change with skill. As unraveling of the image begins and the audience has already become involved, it is here where Picnic exacts its power.
Picnic is being performed in Hall Auditorium. This weekend's performances are sold out but tickets, available at CTS remain, for performances next week, April 24-27 at 8 p.m. and April 21 at 2 p.m. Sponsored by Oberlin College Theater and Dance Program.
Life's a Picnic: Jessica Umphress and Heather Gautschi in rehearsal.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 21; April 19, 1996
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