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LTA Offers Fine Fall 'Picnic'

Pulitzer Prize play from ‘50s shows less than simple times.

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Anna Penniman, Elizabeth Keith, and Jan Gaskins in "Picnic."

Step back with the creative talent of the Little Theatre of Alexandria to an era that may seem simpler now, but which teemed with troubles and passions at the time. Director Howard Vincent Kurtz recreates the feel of the ‘50s with a solid production of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner, William Inge’s "Picnic."

The evening gets underway even before the play begins as the audience enters the auditorium to see, not a drawn curtain, but the setting of the adjoining back yards of two small town Victorian-style houses with its deep green lawn and brightly painted wooden siding with a disturbingly dark sky visible on the horizon. You know it must be the 50s because of the music softly playing in the background.

When Inge’s play begins, a drifter played with flash by Brain Razzino is working for breakfast by taking the trash from one of the houses out to burn with the leaves he has just raked up. He’s a virile, good looking fellow whose attraction for some of the women in the neighborhood is multiplied when the woman who has hired him for odd-jobs has him take off his dirty shirt so she can wash it for him.

Such is the set up for Inge’s seemingly simple but actually highly insightful look at the psyches of women in small town America at the start of the Eisenhower years. His are real flesh-and-blood women with real needs and passions held partially in check by prevailing societal norms, not some idealized television or radio version a-la Ozzie and Harriet.

There are passions here, current and hidden in memory. The lovely daughter in one household is dating the college-bound, but not-too-attractive neighbor her mother hopes will make her a good provider as a husband. Elizabeth Keith fits the bill as "the pretty one" (as she is called by her tomboyish sister, played with an appealing mix of gawky youthfulness and blossoming sexuality herself by Anna Penniman), and Jan Gaskins as their mother reveals the depth of insecurities that plague her due to her own bad luck with the opposite sex.

The burgeoning affair between Keith’s "pretty one" and Razzino’s bare-chested drifter is at the center of the play, but in Kurtz’ mounting, a role that often seems in other productions to be a sub-plot takes on increased importance through the superb performance of the actress playing the part of a school teacher terrified at the prospect of spinsterhood. Rebecca Lenahan takes this character from flighty comic relief through solid emotional drama with a sure touch. In this, she’s aided immensely by Charles Palmer as the hardware store operator she’s been dating in the hope of something more permanent. He, too, captures the humor of his part but imbues it with the angst that underscores the predicament of that male equivalent of a spinster – the "confirmed bachelor" who isn’t quite the freedom loving swinger sometimes conjured up by that term.

This blend of humor and sorrow mixed with a touch of fear of the future seems to be the mark of Inge’s better works (in addition to "Picnic," he penned "Bus Stop" and "Come Back, Little Sheba" during a remarkable run of successful dramas in the ‘50s). This play is often revived in professional and community theater long after most of those that date to the same period have long disappeared from the stage. This is because it is such a satisfying evening of theater when performed intelligently and with sensitivity as it is here.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (<a href=http://www.PotomacStages.com> www.PotomacStages.com</a>). He can be reached at<a href=mailto: Brad@PotomacStages.com>Brad@PotomacStages.com</a>.</i>