Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A satisfying dramatic spread at Stoneham

Delilah Kistler and Aidan Kane decide to make their own Picnic.

Reputations, Edward Albee once opined, are curious things; and he should know, as his own nose-dived for something like two decades. But at least Albee saw a reversal in his critical fortunes; his great gay compatriot, Tennesse Williams, was not so lucky. Likewise the prestige of the closeted William Inge, a leading playwright when Albee first came to prominence, slipped during his later career and then posthumously slid into a seemingly permanent decline. But a few more productions like the Stoneham Theatre's revival of Picnic, which wraps its run this weekend, could begin to change that. It's true this rendering is far from perfect, but it's done well enough for us to perceive just how thoughtful and well-crafted this Pulitzer prize-winner actually is. And these days this feels like a small miracle - imagine, melodrama done with neither condescension nor camp!

Not that Inge doesn't sometimes invite both. Set in a dusty hamlet in Kansas, this anti-pastorale centers on that staple of the post-war stage: a handsome drifter who wanders into a gaggle of lonely, frustrated women. Paul Newman was its original shirtless hunk, and he faced a bevy of familiar female types: the spinster teacher, the prettiest girl in town, her tomboy kid sister, the tough broad who runs a boarding house, etc., etc. But the playwright has far more up his dramatic sleeve than a catfight between stereotypes. That hunky drifter is only one of a trio of not-so-eligible bachelors around whom Inge's women orbit like lonely moons, and from them he conjures a bittersweet roundelay of dreams, hopes and frustrations (he even closes his first act with a group dance), all grounded in a very grim economic reality.

It's that grimness that the Stoneham doesn't quite capture; the clapboard houses of its set are too Our-Town-wholesome, its costumes a little too clean and well-pressed. The yard should be slightly dustier, the very air a bit grittier; we're slightly shocked to realize that train tracks run right behind these facades, but we should have understood that all along: these women are almost on the wrong side of the tracks, hanging onto the bottom rung of gentility - and the men who drift by them are their only ticket up the socio-economic ladder.

In these days of female empowerment, of course, this all seems a bit dated; that doesn't make it any less real - or any less relevant to the exigencies of today. Women are still at an economic disadvantage, and many still make do with men they'd prefer to do without. Romantic risk and compromise, I'm afraid, are timeless topics. And it's that edge of realism that Inge evokes so subtly, and that in the end makes Picnic so haunting.

And some of this does come over at Stoneham, even if director Caitlin Lowans seems at times undecided whether to honor the play's melancholic edge or simply do it up as a period piece. She's also hamstrung by some of her male casting. For that pivotal Paul Newman role she's found a definite hottie in Aidan Kane, who sports dark good looks and a body to die for. But Kane is too sweet and playful to make much sense of his character's unstable past or rough ways; he's obviously all puppy and no predator, which drains the play of its edge and makes his antagonists look too paranoid. And then there's Ben Sloane as Kane's supposed opposite, the big man on campus who's maybe just a cad; Sloane is simply blank when he should seem calculating (although to be fair, he's convincingly shell-shocked at the finale).

These two therefore leave the lovely Delilah Kistler, in the leading role of Madge (who must decide between them), sometimes acting against thin air. Still, she manages to hit the right notes, if in a slightly subdued way. She gets solid back-up from Emily Graham-Handley as that tomboyish kid sister, although Graham-Handley could layer her coltish body language with a touch more unhappy adolescent pout (and she's not nearly working that dance scene for the first notes of innocent, embarrassed desire that should sound there).

Fortunately, the production finds its feet in the performances of Sarah Newhouse and Craig Mathers in the roles of the spinster schoolteacher and her milquetoast beau. I longed for a slightly stronger twist of bitters from Newhouse in her early scenes, but she and Mathers played their second-act duet of manipulation, uncertainty and longing just beautifully (above left); when they were on stage, Picnic felt like a theatrical feast. There were also tasty supporting performances from Lisa Foley and Dee Nelson as Madge's mom, although Nelson, like the rest of the show, should seem a bit more hardscrabble. (After all, she can see the cold choices facing her daughter far more clearly than the girl can herself.) Even as is, however, the production came together with satisfying emotional power in its climax, and its final surprise registered with just the right sense of rue. Here's hoping Picnic won't be the last we see in these parts of William Inge.

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