Playwright William Inge, who would be 85 on May 3, had a troubled, unhappy life--at least at the end. He committed suicide in 1973. After having had four tremendously successful Broadway hits, all of which were turned into profitable films, Inge had an equal number of dismal failures.
He couldn't have been suffering from money woes in his later years. It may be that he never got over the flops, and what he perceived as the diminishment of his gifts.
As a birthday present for the late playwright, artistic director Lonny Chapman decided to stage Group Repertory Theatre's current production of Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Picnic." In a way, it's a very personal gift.
Chapman's career began in the Chicago production of "Mr. Roberts," after which he tried his luck in New York. His first job on Broadway was in a play by actor-author Alexander Knox, directed by Lee Strasberg, called "The Closed Door."
"It closed three weeks later," said Chapman with a chuckle.
Then he did an out-of-town tryout at Theatre Guild chief Lawrence Langner's Westport Country Playhouse. It was a new play by a new playwright the Guild was interested in. His name was William Inge. The play was "Come Back, Little Sheba." Cloris Leachman played the young art student boarder, and Sidney Blackmer and Shirley Booth played the tortured married couple. Chapman was the college athlete posing for the coed. Booth and Blackmer, of course, were set for the Broadway run, but the Guild wasn't sure about the youngsters.
"We had more auditions when we got back to New York," Chapman said, "even though I'd played it in Westport. We had one of those marathon auditions. It got narrowed down to Rod Steiger and me."
Chapman got the role and developed a lasting friendship with Inge.
"I got to be real fond of Inge," he said. "He was a very gentle kind of guy. He'd sworn off drinking by then. He was really a sweet man, and very easy to work with."
Inge was almost 40 then, late blooming for a new playwright, and Chapman said Inge's excitement was palpable.
"It was as if he were suddenly in a dream world where he was like a kid given all these presents for Christmas," said Chapman. "He was just so pleased that the Guild was doing his play."
During that production, Inge, who was living at New York's famous Dakota Apartments, bought a car. But since he hated driving, he would call upon Chapman and his wife to drive him around on Sundays. He also showed Chapman a one-act play that had been staged back home in the Midwest. It was called "Front Porch," and painted a portrait of women sitting around on their Kansas front porch, talking about their problems. Inge expanded the one-act in short order, and with the addition of some characters and a stronger story line, it became "Picnic."
Although Chapman auditioned for the original Broadway production of "Picnic," this time he lost out to Ralph Meeker. Chapman remembers hearing that director Joshua Logan wanted a blond for the role of fiery, hot-blooded Kansas drifter Hal. Incidentally, the smaller role of Hal's nerdy college buddy Alan was played by another newcomer, Paul Newman.
Chapman's next encounter with "Picnic" was during the early '60s, when he was operating a summer stock theater in New York state.
"I didn't feel as though I did it justice," he said. "Well, we had to get it up in a week; it was summer stock. I didn't have it cast well with the resident company. I always felt as though I'd like to do the play again."
Chapman's tribute to Inge means a great deal to him, not only to better the first production of the play he directed, but "because of my fondness for Inge. Fondness for his work. Fondness for him, for the man himself," he said.
Chapman last saw Inge at the Hollywood branch of Actors Studio a few years before his death. At the time, he remembers thinking, Inge "seemed distracted. He wasn't the same Bill I remembered."
So he is very pleased with this opportunity to do "Picnic" again, he said. "Now I feel I've approached something Inge would like. If the critics don't, I think Inge would. I used to hear him talk about it when he had first written it--the feeling of that Labor Day in the play, it's so hot, and the whole sense of Kansas flatlands, and those people."
Group Rep has never done "Picnic" before. Of Inge's four great successes, they've done "Bus Stop" and "Dark at the Top of the Stairs."
Wait a minute. They haven't done "Come Back, Little Sheba," either. Chapman laughed. Maybe, he said, it's because he was in the original production.
"We'll probably do 'Sheba' one of these days."
WHERE: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays. Indefinitely.
HOW MUCH: $15.
CALL: (818) 769-7529.