No Picnic

by Andy Mitchell

William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Picnic,” takes place in his home state of Kansas. The primary setting is the porch of Flo Owens. The single parent of two teenage daughters, Flo rents a room to the colorful school teacher, Rosemary Sydney. Their simple home is the scene of a transformative Labor Day weekend in the 1950s. And while the title takes its name from an event around which the characters are focused, there is no picnic to be seen. It happens off-stage between the acts.

But there is plenty going on before and after the picnic to hold everyone’s attention. Who needs jello, cole slaw and potato salad when you’ve got teen angst, middle-aged despair and a sexy, shirtless drifter?

When Hal Carter shows up at the Owens’ next-door neighbor’s home, all hell breaks loose in this tight-knit household …

Okay, here’s where I break the so-called “fourth wall,” that understood barrier between the actors and the audience. Face it, I don’t go in much for rules and formality. I could say the lead actor during the recent production of “Picnic” at Playhouse on the Square was played by “Roy Pyers of Springfield,” as though I’m some objective impersonal critic. But that’s not my style. I’ve known Roy since he was a snot-nosed kid. I used to date his sister in a different lifetime. So seeing him on stage for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. As the lights went up I had vague recollections of William Holden (star of the movie adaptation), but those were soon forgotten, as Roy was transformed into Hal. So naturally did he assume his role, he was no longer someone I knew, but rather, someone altogether new.

Which is precisely what Hal represented for the other characters in this drama. Crashing their cookies-and-punch party with a flask full of fire, he too, was transformed in the process. It seems no character was spared. Each was somehow altered by his presence.  

The aforementioned Ms. Sydney, a slightly desperate eccentric, was portrayed by another performer I know – my sister, Sherri. Okay, admittedly, I’m biased, but I swear I always forget I’m watching a sibling when she takes the stage. Because she definitely “takes” a stage when she’s on it. But she’s careful not to step on the other actors’ toes. A good actor will elevate the performances of the rest of the cast, not outshine them. And the rest of this cast more than held its own.

My barista buddy, Brandon (Coniglio), portrayed Alan Seymour to a T. Alan is the well-bred boyfriend of Madge Owen, Flo’s oldest daughter, the “pretty” one, who may or may not be falling for the ill-bred Hal. Hannah Hogan, making her Playhouse debut, epitomized the ingénue. As Madge, she represents the grail of male longing. But of course she yearns to be valued for more than her appearance, as is the case with her little sister, Millie, the cigarette-smoking, baseball cap-wearing “smart” one, played by yet another Playhouse newcomer, Carolyn Wood.

The entire cast was well suited to their roles. As I told Kim Shafer, the director, her casting was spot on. Without the right actors, a play won’t work. Fortunately, show after show, the Playhouse players serve the venue well. In fact, one of them this time was an owner, Laurie McCoy. As Helen Potts, the Owens’ next-door neighbor, Laurie exuded a hopeful charm that only she could convey. Her benevolent nature is a cheerful beam in this dark night of the soul. Talk about good casting. That’s Laurie for you. Her smile always cheers me up.

Together, Laurie and husband, Rich, provide a glowing stage most weekend nights – at their Playhouse on the Square, here in downtown Jacksonville. And I’ve yet to see a performance that isn’t well cast, well acted, and well worth the price of admission.

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