While other famed playwrights (Williams, Miller, O'Neill, Faulkner) staked out various sections of America (South, New England, West) for their fictional settings, William Inge looked to his own roots in the Midwest, where most of his many dramas are located.
His most famous tale is "Picnic," which won Inge the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and introduced Kim Novak to movie audiences in 1955. It is this mid-century period that informs most of Inge's writing and overshadows the failures and frustrations of his characters.
The Westminster Community Theatre currently is reviving Inge's magnum opus, casting some actors against type and probing deeply into the characters' disturbed psyches. Director Lenore Stjerne has elicited some indelible performances in her intimate staging of this classic drama.
The central character of Hal Carter, a rough-hewn but well-meaning drifter, usually is depicted as a powerfully built, macho type with a short fuse. At WCT, Chris McClary is more slight of physique than the well-off college chum he arrives in Kansas to visit, but he's a coiled spring of restrained outrage, fighting his inner demons as he connects with his friend's best girl in a life-changing moment.
Jennifer Whitney is more subdued and less glamorous than her character of Madge generally is portrayed. She projects an aura of enforced normalcy opposite Hal's bravado, and the combination meshes surprisingly well as she experiences her first real taste of romance.
Her tomboyish little sister, Millie, played by Jennifer Bales, undergoes a startling transformation, from jeans and pigtails in the first act to a true raven-haired beauty in the second, her newfound glitter masking the fact that she's still an unformed teenage girl experimenting recklessly with alcohol. Apart from a tendency to rush her dialogue, Bales delivers a memorable performance.
Joan Meissenburg renders the most honest and heartfelt character as Flo, the girls' mother, who survived a bad marriage and strives to prevent her daughters from experiencing her fate. Her unfulfilled neighbor, played by Barb Turino, also projects a natural Midwestern flair, delighting in the young people's antics.
The emotion-charged subplot between the spinster schoolteacher and her somewhat more worldly boyfriend also is well presented. Barbara Kerford delivers an aching account of the passion beneath her surface sheen, while Richard DeVicariis absolutely nails his good-old-boy storekeeper caught up in his lady friend's maelstrom.
Kevin Casey succeeds in projecting the blandness of his moneyed suitor, and Tyler Hill has some frisky moments as the pesky newsboy. Kip Hogan does the work of two actresses as she excels in a smaller role written for a pair of chatty teachers.
The backyard setting, for which director Stjerne shares credit with Tom Mynar and Michael Crumley, nicely projects rustic Midwestern charm. Crumley and Stjerne also created the fine lighting effects.
"Picnic" remains one of the American theater's classic dramas, harkening back to a more uncomplicated time and stirring the passions beneath Inge's "normal" Midwesterners of the early 1950s. Its revival is solid and thought-provoking at the Westminster Community Theatre.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
Where: Westminster Community Theatre, 7272 Maple St., Westminster
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 23
Cost: $18 to $20
Information: (714) 893-8626 or http://www.wctstage.org