We never see the picnic in Center Stage's production of William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Picnic. That's because the characters whose lives are transformed in this small-town Kansas setting are the ones who don't go to the town's Labor Day picnic.
Two couples - each from a different generation - skip out not only from the annual picnic, but also from life in this stifling, conventional town. In director Irene Lewis' production, their yearnings are so palpable they transcend 1950s Kansas and are recognizable to anyone who's ever felt a grand passion and had the nerve to follow it through.
The central couple is Madge Owens, an 18-year-old beauty, and Hal Carter, a handsome drifter whose appearance stirs the libidos of all the female characters. As played by Anne Bowles and Leo Kittay, Madge and Hal are meant for each other in more ways than merely the physical (although that attraction is strong - just watch the way they dance together or the way he grabs the straps on her sundress to pull her toward him in an embrace).
Bowles and Kittay also make it clear that their characters are a good pair because of a shared sense of discontent (hers with small-town life and his with life in general) and because, though neither is especially smart, they're both self-aware enough to know it.
The play's other couple is older - Rosemary, a spinster schoolteacher, and Howard, a middle-aged merchant. Kristine Nielsen's Rosemary is at once the play's most comic figure and one of its most poignant. Rosemary puts on a strong front of self-sufficiency, but she's terrified of ending up alone. Nielsen portrays Rosemary, however, as a very determined woman; when she decides to start a second chapter in her life with Howard, there's nothing that Kevin McClarnon's well-meaning but weak-willed Howard can do but acquiesce.
The other characters are also well-realized. Portraying Madge's wealthy, socially desirable long-time boyfriend, Alan, Saxon Palmer comes across as a clean-cut Joe College type, but when his character's heart breaks, the sadness feels genuine. And as Madge's mother, Linda Gehringer may bear a physical resemblance to her pretty daughter, but emotionally, her own unhappy romantic history has turned her into a careworn, stark realist.
As Madge's younger sister, Kristen Sieh is a delightfully gawky blend of tomboy and bookworm, and, returning to Center Stage after a long absence, Tana Hicken brings cheerfulness and grit to the unglamorous role of a neighbor living vicariously through the young people next door.
Designer Scott Bradley's expansive Kansas set situates the action in the yards between two clapboard houses, whose skewed exterior walls suggest that the heartland of America can be an unsettling place.
Picnic isn't just set in a small town, it can also seem like a small story. But though the characters may appear hackneyed - the charismatic drifter, the old-maid schoolteacher, the rich man's son and the town beauty - Lewis' interpretation offers insights into their inner lives. Even in a play in which two couples opt for love, we also see the loneliness - and in Rosemary's case, the desperation - fueling that love.
Inge originally didn't want his two couples to go off happily. But while they are paired up in the end, they are not guaranteed bliss (or that their lives will be a picnic) in Lewis' production. What they are guaranteed is a future built on the premise that living life to the fullest means taking chances.
Center Stage has taken a chance in reviving this chestnut, but Lewis' swift, thoughtful staging shows not only what a solid piece of craftsmanship Inge's play is, but also how achingly human his characters still are.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 20