Thursday, April 6, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "A Utopian Revisioning of a Small-Town American Dystopia" (on William Inge's "Picnic")

a utopian revisioning of a small-town american dystopia

by Douglas Messerli


William Inge Picnic, directed by John Farmanesh-Bocca; the production I saw was at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Los Angeles, April 2, 2023


It may be odd, but certainly is predictable, that gay playwright William Inge spent most of his life writing about heterosexual relationships in small-town America, particularly from the viewpoint of women. In the 1950s when Inge was at his best, few stage dramas and no movie could discuss homosexuality, so a writer had little choice but to focus his intentions on the dominant forms of love.

      All of his figures suffer instead the mid-twentieth century American angst about class, identity, and sex while outwardly supporting and sustaining the very forces which are the causes of their inner suffering. In Picnic the females include an elderly woman, Helen Potts (Rosemary Thomas), whose long-ago marriage was nullified by her dominating mother for whom she is still caring, and whose sexual life, in effect, has been terminated at an early age. It is no wonder that throughout the play she is fearless about inviting young men to “tromp” through her house and is the most encouraging character in the play for sexual encounters, particularly with handsome outsiders.


     Her next-door neighbor Flo Owens (Yolanda Snowball), on the other hand, has been in love and raised two daughters, but has been seriously hurt and damaged by her husband’s extramarital affairs which ended with his leaving her; it is inevitable perhaps that she seeks a seemingly “model” husband for her beautiful but not intellectually talented daughter, Madge (Mattie Harris Lowe in the production I saw), who, despite Flo’s moral scruples, she almost pushes to become more sexually involved so that the boy, Alan Seymour (Ahkei Togun), son of the wealthiest man in town, will quickly marry her before her beauty fades as she feels her own has, helping to cause the breakup of her marriage.

     The boarder in her house, the school teacher Rosemary Sydney (Sydney A. Mason) is perhaps the best example of this small-town hypocrisy. As a teacher she pretends to keep the highest of moral standards, but as a woman she is desperate in her middle-age to find a husband and willing to do nearly anything to push even the man she doesn’t truly love, Howard Bevans (Derrick Parker), into marriage. She is the most openly conflicted person in the play, attacking those who drink while secretly imbibing and enjoying it, even to the point of becoming rather drunk at the picnic. She makes a desperate pass at a younger man who, when he rejects her blatant sexual advances, attacks him as a sexual degenerate the moment after she has ripped off his shirt, accidently on purpose so that she might get one last glimpse of his rippling abs. She is desperate and sad in the pulls her society has demanded of her, displaying a horrific schizophrenia of church-going spinster and a sexually needy woman.

       Flo’s younger daughter Millie (Symphony Canady), an intelligent, curious young good-looking teenager who is beginning to realize that it is time for her to begin wearing dresses and dating young men, is equally confused by her tomboyish behavior, her dislike of all the young boys in her town, and her longings to leave and become a writer like the woman whose book, The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ©, she is currently reading, Carson McCullers. Inge codes this young girl as a future lesbian without needing to say a word about her sexual proclivities of which even she is still unaware.

       And finally, there is Madge, the most beautiful girl in town, a not terribly bright woman who, nonetheless, is tired of being merely the subject of the male gaze, and auditioning for the role of a future trophy wife that has no meaning other than through her physical appearance. She goes along with the path chosen for her by her own mother and the community at large, winning beauty contests such as the Neewollah Queen (Halloween spelled backwards, an interesting commentary about all of these Labor Day events), and making herself pretty, but is exhausted in seeking who she herself might truly be, while at the same time representing the essence of an insider, beloved by all. 

       None of these women is happy, but then neither are the men of the community, even if Inge does not bother to explore most of their personalities in depth.

       The local paperboy Bomber (Rogelio Douglas III) would be a lover but hasn’t the looks, brains, nor personality to be anything other than the loud-mouthed challenger he feels compelled to portray.


       Bevans is perhaps the most well-adjusted of all the characters—except for the fact that as a meek business man who has enjoyed the company of Rosemary, he lets himself be bullied into marriage simply to qualm her mid-life desperation.

       Even the wealthy young Alan Seymour realizes that no matter how well he achieves he will never be important in his father’s eyes, who likes prizes and contests, the richest man in the world, the best football scorer, the Queen of Neewollah, etc.

      The outsider to this community, and a threat as any stranger has long posed to small, rural cities and towns throughout history, is the most angst-ridden of all. Hal Carter (Monti D. Washington) may have been once known as the best college football player of his day, but he comes from not only what is often described as “the wrong side of the tracks”—where, given the barriers of small-town USA, even the Owens’ and Potts’ small, white-framed houses are clearly located compared with the Seymour mansion—but is from a dysfunctional family in which the father was alcoholic and his mother involved with another man. He himself was arrested and sent way to reform school for stealing a ride on someone else’s motorcycle. And like Madge, he is not intellectually gifted, having flunked out of college. Only for a few years of fraternity life, when star football players are given permission to share quarters with wealthy frat boys when he met Seymour, has Hal lived in a world of permission, and even then, he was disliked for being a braggart. 

     Since then, Hal has attempted to get a job in Hollywood, worked as a farmhand, and bummed around the country surviving through part-time jobs without ever being able to find something might make him feel the glory he was awarded between the football game goal posts. Hal, in short,  is the all-American boy-man that constitutes so very much of the stereotype of the US male, the prom-King in high school who lives the rest of his life as kind of Willy Loman traveling salesman or serves out his sentence of adulthood as a janitor with a household of four or five children, the only difference being this man has had no high school days and no woman who has wanted him except women like the two he has met along the way, who engage him in sex and steal all his hard-earned wages.

      Yet finally, in this dystopic world, Madge and Hal meet up and discover a love for one another that changes their whole perception of themselves and is strong enough to make it worth leaving their known worlds for a strange urban haven. The city Hal chooses, ironically, suffered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in US history in 1921, but by the 1950s had come to be described as "American's most beautiful city."

      In short, Inge’s characters are all standard small-town stereotypes of the day. I was going to add the word “small-town white stereotypes” because this playwright’s small Kansas communities are just that, small towns such as those in which Joshua Logan’s movie version of the play was filmed—Hutchinson, Halsted, Nickerson, Salina, and Sterling—white communities where very few blacks existed in the 1950s. Which brings us to the central issue of this particular all-black production, directed by John Farmanesh-Bocca, the son of an exiled Iranian General.

      Let me begin by saying that I always look forward to racial and gender switches in the productions of classic dramatic theater—and directors and actors have felt free to make just such kinds of changes in my own plays (written under the name Kier Peters)—because of the new insights with which they provide us. And certainly, by casting the major character of this play, an outsider football hero who seems always on the run from the police, desperate to arrest him for the very slightest of infractions, a black man gives an entirely new dimension to the character. We can understand, far better than we ever might have comprehended why William Holden can’t keep a job and is hounded out of nearly every town he visits, when the character is portrayed by a figure—even more trim and muscularly well-developed than the 1955 shirtless Holden—such as this work’s Monti Washington.

     As a black man his role is no more stereotyped that it was in the original, and it makes far more sense. Indeed, it might have been even more interesting if Hal’s character might have been the only black figure of this production, where the trope of the dangerous “white gaze” upon the beautiful black male might have been truly explored in a manner in which it seldom has been in modern US literature.

      While we know that black individuals suffer all the fears and emotions expressed in this work, in 1953, the date of this play—the same year of the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, the first major boycott of an urban bus system, and Jackie Robinson, signing with the Dodgers, became the first black player of the Major Leagues—I might suggest that most of the black community’s attentions were not focused on the relatively minor melodramatic sufferings of these characters. While as Farmanesh-Bocca argues, blacks were deeply contributing to the US that became an economic superpower, it is hard to imagine their collective consciousness being focused on the sexual and class faux pas of a handsome outsider and a beautiful insider of their local community. And no small midwestern town that I know of in 1953 had given permission to the range of wealth and acceptance to blacks as we witness in this stage production in the character of Madge’s beau and Hal’s college friend Seymour.

      Yet the actors of this work are all quite wonderful in their roles and totally convincing. And if you can ignore all the historically anachronistic details, this director’s Picnic is just that, a joyful celebration of young love that wins out over all the adult strictures and consternation.

      In an interview with the director with Shari Barrett, Farmanesh-Bocca suggests that he has always felt “on the other side of the glass looking in” upon American culture, and as a kind of tourist to the American experience he has spent much of his career exploring what US culture truly is. He explains that he loved a country that he never felt particularly loved him in return.

     And in that context, we can see this production as a kind of Utopian vision of what US experience should be, a world in which we can explore the mid-50s psyche of blacks much in the same way that the country gave permission to playwrights such as Inge, who despite having his own roots in just such small Kansas towns, because of his sexuality was exploring a world from which he equally stood outside, heterosexual love.

     Finally, from such an expected shift of viewpoint we do indeed suddenly get a new perspective. What if these small rural midwestern towns were made up primarily of blacks? As a friend who joined me at this event commented upon leaving the theater, “It turns out nothing is basically any different.” As the director himself comments: “The play, in the hands of a black cast, rang like a bell. Rather than narrowing the scope of the play, it only expanded the scope of the story of America, inviting us all to celebrate how unique and similar our human experiences are.”

      If Picnic is a play that has long seemed dated, in this production it has been given new life and new meaning in its exploration of black identity, love, and class relationships in the heart of the heart of the country that never but should have existed.


Los Angeles, April 6, 2023


Photographs by Jenny Graham