American Theater Company Re-Imagines A Classic
ATC artistic director Will Davis, the only trans Artistic Director running a company in Chicago, has set out to create a bold re-imagining of William Inge's classic play Picnic in his most recent production. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, tells the story of several women in a small town and the suppression of their burgeoning sexuality and adulthood, disconnected from their desires, yearning for something greater.
These themes resonate deeply for Davis, who has re-imagined Inge's classic with a genderfluid ensemble which includes Molly Brennan as Hal and Malic White as Madge. While non-traditional choices for these roles, these two actors’ impressive chemistry and earnestness help to illustrate that the feelings and dreams of Inge's characters need not exist within the binary of gender.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of gender identity and sexuality, the events in Picnic are bound to resonate with anyone who has felt young, insignificant, and yet hoping they are on the verge of something meaningful.
Stripped Down and Symbolic Staging
In addition to his casting choices, Davis has also chosen to stage this production more symbolically. The set, designed by Joe Schermoly, is devoid of the realistic porches and yards that have filled theatre’s stages in past productions. Instead, audiences witness the lives of sisters Millie (Alexia Jasmene) and Madge unfold on a deep, raked stretch of floral carpeting. A door floats amidst the suggestion of a skyline upstage, a constant reminder of the exit so many of Inge’s characters are searching for.
Moody washes of light by designer Rachel K. Levy transition us, sometimes abruptly, throughout different settings and styles. And Davis has embraced a range of theatrical styles in his production: elements of seance; a mostly disembodied voice (Laura McKenzie) as the nosy but excited neighbor Mrs. Potts and her gaggle of gossips; a series of representational tableaus.
While some of these choices could be distancing to an audience, several provide more intimacy and lyricism to Inge’s piece, especially a recurring motif with glowing houses which pays off beautifully in the play’s final moments, reinforcing the homogeneity of small town life while demonstrating that outliers like this story could happen anywhere across America.
Davis Wants Picnic to “Wash Over You”
In a curtain speech prior to opening night, Davis explained that this production was conceived as a letter to Inge’s ghost (Inge, a homosexual who struggled to balance his public and private life, committed suicide later in life) and that it should “wash over you.”
At times, these admirable goals manifest in jarring transitions that break up the fluidity of Davis’ production. Segues between Davis’ powerful imagistic scenes could use a bit more refinement to keep audiences tracking with the plot as they experience the piece as a “wash.”
Thankfully, strong leading performances by Brennan and White help navigate the choppier stretches of water, orienting the audience in truly vulnerable, wistful, and engaging interpretations of their characters and helping the style grow on you as the piece develops.
A Fresh Concept for a Classic Play
Surely, there are many bold choices in Davis’ production which provide audiences with much to consider--both theatrically and emotionally--after they leave the theatre. While it runs the risk of alienating audiences in its style and presentation, it’s precisely these risks that in some moments of the play heighten its substance. Lovingly crafted by an artistic director with vision, American Theater Company’s Picnic features several moving scenes with powerful images sure to haunt audiences once they leave the theatre.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through April 23rd, 2017.
Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm
Sunday at 2:00pm.
American Theater Company
1909 W. Byron Street,
Chicago, Illinois 60613