Theater Review ‘Picnic’

Ben Miles

“Unless you are at a picnic, life is no picnic,” this cleverly axiomatic phrase is attributed to comedy writer Jane Wagner. The 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Picnic,” by William Inge, lends evidence to Wagner’s witticism. The play suggests that even a holiday picnic can be rife with drama and romantic discontent, while also seeing life through such a occasion.

In Director John Farmanesh-Bocca’s recreation of “Picnic,” now in an exciting staging at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, a memorable cast of characters are consummated by a Black American ensemble. But according to Farmanesh-Bocca’s program note, not a word of dialogue has been altered.

Though “Picnic” has been transported from the 1950s to the 1960s, with a toe-tapping soundtrack that sounds as if it could’ve be lifted from an episode of “Soul Train” (both John Farmanesh-Bocca and Jeff Gardner are credited with sound design), the story of eros versus practicality still rings with soundly with currency and relevance.

Hal Carter is a drifter who has taken up doing odd jobs and chores in return for meals and clothes-washing (played with an amiable charisma and the muscular physique of a body builder by Monti D. Washington). Ms. Helen Potts (Rosemary Thomas) is all too pleased to have this studly  young man at her service. Ms. Flo Owens (Yolanda Snowball) is not so impressed by Hal’s shirtless presence. After all, she’s the mother of two coming of age daughters – Madge (the gorgeous, credible Mattie Harris Lowe who rotates performances with the stately Caitlin O’Grady) and Millie (Symphony Canady who embodies cuteness).

Madge is in a serious relationship with Alan Seymour, who coincidentally is a former fraternity brother to Hal (Ahkei Togun lends a sincere spirit to this characterization). Their friendship seems quickly refreshed, but as the characters plan for a Labor Day picnic, it becomes evident that there’s a erotic magnetism between Hal and Madge, it becomes particularly evident in a dance sequence they indulge in together, as if no else is present; hubba hubba! (choreography by John Farmanesh-Bocca and Brianna Price).

There are other characters and subplots that add interest and a sort of gossipy intrigue to “Picnic,” which makes the play all the more true to life. For example, the relationship between Howard Bevans, a small business owner and Rosemary Sydney, an “old maid” school teacher. Howard makes it clear how happy he is with the way Rosemary “treats” him after the picnic. Of course, that’s a coded remark referring to the physical intimacy that went on between the two. At this point Rosemary literally begs for Howard to marry her.

Several minor roles in “Picnic” give proof to the statement, that there are no small roles, only small actors: Rogelio Douglas lll as Bomber, the newspaper boy; Erika L. Holmes as Irma Kronkite; and Caitlin O’Grady as Christine Shoenwalder (who sometimes switches roles with Mattie Harris Lowe to perform as Madge) all add a texture of realism to this view of life in rural Kansas, circa 1960s.

Additionally, a transporting scenic design by Frederica Nascimento,  costuming by Mylette Nora and a mood setting lighting design by Chu-Hsuan Chang all add mood and a sense of time and place to this “Picnic.”

What: “Picnic”

Where: Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles, 90025

When: March 24 to May 28

How: boxoffice@odysseytheatre.com, phone (310) 477-2055

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