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01/27/2013 08:41 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2013

This Picnic Needs Some Heat -- A Look Back at Repressed Women on a Sultry Summer Day

"It's so hot and still," says one character in Picnic, William Inge's 1953 drama currently in performances at the American Airlines Theater. While the character is speaking of the weather on a sultry labor day weekend, the same could be said of this play, which, is severely lacking in both heat and action.

Directed by Sam Gold, who brought new life to the dated Look Back in Anger last season, Picnic, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, depicts a group of restless women in a small town, whose outwardly complacent lives are shaken by the arrival of a handsome stranger.

Hal (Sebastian Stan, notably buffed and tanned) is hired by the Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn), an elderly woman forced to care for her even more elderly mother. Potts lives next door to Flo (Mare Winningham), and her two daughters Madge, the town beauty (Maggie Grace) and Millie (an excellent Madeleine Martin). Also living with them is the cheerfully unmarried schoolteacher Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel), who offers disturbing insight into just how trapped all of these women are in one way or another.

Seeing Hal -- who spends the majority of the first act shirtless -- shocks all of the women's senses, including Madge, and the two supposedly share an immediate chemistry, emotional as well as physical. Madge, who is "going steady" with the wealthy Alan (Ben Rappaport, solid and impressive), is pressured by her mother to marry him but appears indifferent to the idea. When Hal stirs up passion in her -- as well as in almost all the other women who meet him -- her life changes, irreversibly.

The plot of Picnic is intriguing, and watching such an undeniably dated play from a 21st-century perspective was interesting, but I was disappointed in the lack of chemistry I witnessed onstage, especially when chemistry is what propels the plot from restlessness into actual turmoil. Hal presents himself as a braggart who is actually a lost boy, but Stan's performance does not provide enough contrast between the two sides of Hal to offer any actual insight into the boy. When he exposes his vulnerability to Madge, which supposedly attracts her to him, nothing new seems to be revealed; as a result, her decision to be with him appears to be nothing more than lust. While that could be enough of a reason on its own (after all, Stan is a very attractive man), the second-act exchange between the two is written as a love scene; not lust.

As Madge, Grace gives a lovely, but underdeveloped, performance. Grace is beautiful, but her delivery of Inge's textured script does not depict enough of the restlessness or frustration Madge feels at being valued only for her beauty. She does not present herself as a woman in turmoil or feeling like an outcast, but that is the driving force of her dramatic decision at the end of Act Two. Grace and Stan share a lovely moment dancing together, which is supposed to depict the growing attraction between the two, but the one conversation they have alone does not depict enough passion, latent or active, to propel the play.

Madge's rebellion could be completely understandable; after all, her mother is urging her to marry her wealthy boyfriend, telling her, "A pretty girl doesn't have long," and reminding her daughter that even though she is 18 now, she will then bed "19, 20, 21, then 40." But Madge is not the only woman struggling to exist in her world; all of these women are fighting against a society that restricts and sometimes oppresses them. Madge's mother speaks less than lovingly about her husband, but she is resigned to make the most of what her life has become and hopes for better for her daughters. And played by the wonderful Mare Winningham, the character of Flo is given so much depth and texture that I found her much more interesting than her older daughter. The younger daughter, Millie, is intelligent but less attractive and clearly meant for something more than her small town and she knows it. Martin gives an excellent performance as Millie, offering insight into her vulnerability underneath the protective, gruff exterior she has built. Her rebellious spirit is apparent; the first time we see her she has snuck outside to smoke a cigarette and by the end of the play she has articulated her determination to escape her small town.

As Rosemary, the "old maid schoolteacher," Marvel gives a powerhouse performance, portraying her character's insecurity as well as her desperation, which she strives to hide. When confronting her boyfriend Howard (Reeve Birney) about his reluctance to marry her, her desperation is almost frightening to witness. (Although, given Howard's lecherous comments about Madge's beauty, perhaps Rosemary would have been better off without him.) And Burstyn offers such sympathy into her character's loneliness, as well as her appreciation of Hal's beauty, that I found myself longing to know more about her life, of which the audience is told very little.

Picnic is undeniably dated; its setting is beautifully rendered by Andrew Lieberman's sets and David Zinn's costumes, and its portrayal of gender roles illustrates its age as well. As Madge's boyfriend, Alan innocently objectifies her, saying he wants to look at her under the moonlight and prove to himself she is real. And when Rosemary pleads with Howard to marry her, telling him he's "got to," his baffled response is, "If a woman wants a man to marry her, she could at least say please." But despite both the women and men seeking company and community, it is a very lonely play, ending much like it began -- women sitting together on a porch, with no one but each other. After all, this is a play about a man entering a woman's world, and because this is the 1950s, this is a world of repression.

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