Picnic, the Roundabout Theater revival of the play by William Inge is the story of love vs. loneliness. It takes place in a small Kansas town probably in the early 1950s (it was a contemporary play when it opened on Broadway in 1953 starring Paul Newman in his Broadway debut.)
The action takes place in front of a simple but well executed set depicting the exterior of two houses. In one, Mrs. Potts, a lonely spinster (Ellen Burstyn) lives with her mother and hires Hal (Sebastian Stan), a strappingly handsome young grifter to do chores, paying him with a home cooked breakfast.
Her next door neighbor Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) is a widow, raising two teenage girls: Madge (Maggie Grace) the 17 yr old ingénue who works as a cashier in the local store and her younger sister, Millie (Madeline Martin) who is smarter but not as conventionally attractive.
Despite her looks and the fact that all eligible young men in town have the hots for her, Madge is insecure – a feeling constantly reinforced by her mom who fears she only has a few prime years to land a husband and wants to fix her up with Alan (Ben Rappaport), the local college student home for summer break. Despite her superior intellect, Millie is jealous of her sister and all the attention she receives from boys, especially Alan, for whom she has a crush.
As it turns out Hal was a college roommate of Alan’s – there on a football scholarship, but never fitting in and eventually dropping out. The young men are happy to reconnect until Madge falls for Hal and he “steals” her away, from Alan.
Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel) is a single, middle-aged teacher who rents a room at the Owens’ house and spends her time socializing with several colleagues but beneath a confident exterior is depressed and worried she will never find a husband. She is desperately trying to marry Howard (Reed Birney), a successful businessman – at one point begging him on her knees.
So each character is in search of love and in their own way, struggling with insecurity and the fear of being alone. Much of the setting is autobiographical for Inge who grew up in a small town in Kansas, surrounded by a household of women (including the schoolteacher). Inge struggled with loneliness, depression, and drinking and from the little I read of his life was also dealing with being a closeted gay man.
The play deals with very real demons but never delves very deeply into the darkness, remaining safely in the shallow end, lightheartedly teasing the audience with a few entertaining splashes. To be fair, the format is a tragicomedy and the levity is added for balance. But this theme requires a dive deep below the surface and its simplistic and predictable plot lines land like so many unsatisfying belly whoppers. The cast does a good enough job with what they’ve got to work with but the problem is the material is dated and there’s just not enough “there” there. Apparently it didn’t appear so dated in 1953 as it won Inge a Pulitzer prize in drama. Inge was inspired by Tennessee Williams, but unlike Williams was unable to break the timeless barrier and Roundabout would have been wise to leave this one on the shelf.