This Holiday’s No Picnic
By Tom Wachunas
Seat Of The Pants Productions and The Plain Local Community Center For The Arts present Picnic, by William Inge, in the Black Box Theatre, located in Glen Oak High School, 1801 Schneider St. NE, Canton, Ohio / August 28- 30/ Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday afternoon at 2 / Tickets are $16 for adults and $12 for students, and can be purchased at www.translationsart.com/picnic
A recurring sound in this production of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Picnic, is that of the plaintive whistle from a passing train. Signaling both a place left behind and a future destination, the sound becomes a role unto itself - a haunted harbinger of jarring changes that transpire in a Kansas small town neighborhood preparing for a picnic (which, ironically enough, we never actually see) on a sweltering Labor Day.
Once again, director Craig Joseph (with several notable past Canton Players Guild productions to his credit) shows his remarkable acuity for drawing out compelling realism from his cast members. They truly own their roles, imbuing Inge’s language - which on paper can sometimes seem hoakey and histrionic – with visceral authenticity. Additionally, The Black Box Theatre is made all the more intimate by Micah Harvey’s artful set that cuts across the floor so that we in the audience, viewing it from two sides, feel like neighbors peering into the shared back yard where most of the story unfolds.
Justin Edenhoffer plays Hal, a scruffy, college-dropout drifter who rolls into town like a Kansas twister. For all of his bad-boy strutting and shirtless posing, he’s complicated and essentially an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. Mr. Edenhoffer embodies Hal’s lithe sexuality and swagger with masterful agility even as he realizes his shortcomings. He’s hired by the amiable Helen, who is apt to see the best in anyone - and played here with a spirit of wisdom and endearing tenderness by Kathy J. Boyd - to do handy work around her house where she cares for her (unseen) ailing mother. Living next door are her neighbors, single-mom Flo (April Deming), her two daughters, 18 year-old Madge (Anna Gallucci) and younger sister Millie (Natalie Welch), and a school teacher tenant, Rosemary (Jacki Dietz).
Anna Gallucci’s Madge - the proverbial prettiest girl in town - is an arresting portrait of melancholy and vulnerability as she negotiates an identity crisis. When Flo complains that Madge spends too much time in front of the mirror, Madge replies that it’s only because she wonders if she even exists beyond the physical beauty that everyone else is so crazy about. When she hears that lonely train whistle, she imagines journeying to a place freed from the constricting conventions of life in rural Kansas, and finally liberated from her mother’s agenda for her to marry the sophisticated, clean-cut and monied Alan (Tim Carmany), Hal’s former fraternity brother. She’s perfectly positioned to fall for Hal’s “dangerous” charms, if only because he (of all people!) sees her not as a pretty doll to be coveted and claimed, but a real person to be cherished.
As the doting mother Flo, April Deming effectively exudes quiet desperation and pensive urgency, eager for Madge to marry into a life she herself couldn’t acquire. Meanwhile, Natalie Welch nails the role of the scholarly tomboy Millie, resentful over all the attentions paid to her older sister, with an infectious, animated mix of sass and woundedness.
Some delightful moments of comic relief are provided by Jacki Dietz, playing Rosemary, along with Angeleina Valentine and Jeannie Clarkson, who play Irma and Christine respectively, Rosemary’s chatty teacher compatriots. Dietz is also central in some of the play’s most emotionally volatile scenes. In one, fueled by a few swigs of bootleg whiskey, she unleashes an explosive verbal assault on Hal - a no-holds-barred condemnation of everything she finds objectionable about him. Later, she surrenders her dignity in a pathetic plea for marriage to her reluctant suitor, Howard (Andrew Knode), a plainspoken if not clueless store owner. Particularly memorable there is Knode’s demeanor of numbed acquiescence in the face of Dietz’s euphoria.In his role of Alan, Tim Carmany renders a convincing transformation – from an initially genuine enthusiasm at his reunion with Hal, through growing irritation at Hal’s bravado, and ultimately into devastating heartbreak over Hal’s inevitable seduction of Madge.
Indeed, the operative energy in this story is inevitability. In the end, you get the sense that even for young Millie, earlier teased and harassed by the gadfly paperboy named Bomber (Kyle Burnett), romance waits somewhere in the wings.Picnic isn’t just a dated snapshot of 1950s Midwestern life tinged with despondency and sexual repression. Alternately poignant and searing, it is a timeless reminder that in any quest for real personhood, the only certainty is change itself. Dreams can be born and broken with all the regularity of a train running right on time.
PHOTOS by Jeremy Aronhalt, from top: (1) left to right, Kathy J. Boyd, Natalie Welch, April Deming, Justin Edenhofer (center), Tim Carmany, Anna Gallucci; (2) Anna Gallucci (left), April Dening; (3) Natalie Welch (with cake), April Dening (seated), Kathy J. Boyd