If you have children, you might find David Cromer's intensely emotional revival of "Picnic" at Writers' Theatre almost too much to take. And if you happen to be single, lonely and of a certain age? Ditto.
The oft-underrated William Inge, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this 1953 drama of small-town Kansas, was a chronicler of quiet Midwestern desperation. His adult characters -- whose intelligence often belies their humble economic circumstances -- have an uncannily sophisticated sense of the fragility of their lives. And in his stories of their state, Inge shows us a place caught painfully between the pull of social sophistication to the east and, to the west, the pleasurable dangers of the frontier.Inge people know they're young and pretty only for 30 seconds. They know youthful mistakes in love and sex aren't easily eradicated. They know that, in desperate moments, you have to fight. And they know that the chance for lifelong happiness comes and goes in an instant.
It feels as if Cromer, an exceptionally talented and incisive stage director, knows all this too. As with his caustic 2006 production of Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," his devastating "Picnic" goes directly for the jugular, albeit by way of a certain throbbing sensuality that deftly acknowledges the other side of Inge. If Cromer's Inge revivals had been done at flashier theaters -- or on film or HBO -- I swear they'd be the talk of the nation. But then maybe their artistry would have been compromised. I'll take 'em just like this.
Designed by Jack Magaw to make you feel as if you're sitting on a porch with the characters, this exquisitely cast show is made up of small, gorgeously crafted moments. Most notable is the scene between a middle-age schoolteacher named Rosemary Sydney (played by Hanna Dworkin, who has never been better) and a small-time shopkeeper named Howard Bevans (Marc Grapey). Rosemary decides she needs to marry this very ordinary man before she falls into the pit of middle-age oblivion. Howard isn't so sure that's a good thing. And with that simple truth, these two fine Chicago players pull at your heartstrings.
I was similarly moved by several moments from Natasha Lowe, who plays the mother of the two teenage girls (Bridgette Pechman's ripe, uncertain Madge and Hillary Clemens' spunky, clear-eyed Millie) whose romantic desires and insecurities make up much of the play's action. Once again, these are all simple moments. Lowe's character made mistakes herself in the past. We watch with her as Madge makes the same ones. And Lowe, who is superb, makes you feel every inch of a mother's pain and helplessness.
Unlike a lot of Chicago directors who can be overly loyal to certain actors, Cromer simply casts skilled performers who are absolutely right for the parts. If you know this play already and have imagined its characters, these actors will fill those shoes with uncanny precision.
I wouldn't say the show masters the ending, which also is the weakest part of the script. Boyd Harris, the handsome young actor playing the bad boy in town, has great potential but not yet the chops to fully bring off all the complexity of the final moments.
But by then, this gorgeously honest show has already worked its magic.
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Where: Writers' Theatre Chicago,
325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $50-65 at 847-242-6000