It seems to me there's more than one reason for staging a revival. The first one that springs to mind, because it's the most obvious, is that a well-written and successful play is always a strong contender for old and new audiences.
A second reason is that a play by a respected playwright or even someone less respected that may have gotten lost in a show-biz shuffle at its debut deserves a second chance. A third is that audiences for a known playwright are not only ready to see anything from him or her but are even eager to know the entire canon, good or not so good.
These odd thoughts crossed my mind while sitting through the Peccadillo Theater Company's look at A Loss of Roses, William Inge's 1959 play now settled in at St. Clement's in association with La Femme Theatre Productions.
"Settled in" may be the wrong way to phrase it, since the drama's initial 25-performance run doesn't suggest that Inge's work, introduced at the end of a decade when he'd built a solid reputation, had the potential staying power of, for instance, Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba.
Plays can be misunderstood during initial outings. They can often prove their worth in revivals, which perhaps Peccadillo artistic director and this production's director Dan Wackerman figured. If that's the case, he miscalculated. If he reckoned audiences are hungry for anything an author perpetrated, whether top-drawer or lower down, he's not on firm ground here.
Not only is A Loss of Roses not particularly forceful or insightful or trenchant or meaningful as seen 55 years on, it reveals something apparent earlier about Inge but is more noticeable now -- how doggedly he wrote in the shadow of Tennessee Williams. With The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams had established a template for a certain kind of play about longing and loss and repressed passions that Inge had done nicely using.
With A Loss of Roses, however, he revealed how tired the formula had become. That's the one where a family that may be going along relatively comfortably or, on the other hand, whose dissatisfactions have remained vague suddenly become threatened by the arrival of an outsider, an intruder, a flesh-and-blood catalyst.
There's no need to point out that the circumstances are rife in Williams's Streetcar and Inge's Picnic. And here they are again when the small-town Kansas home of Helen Baird (Deborah Hedwall), who lives with 21-year-old son Kenny (Ben Kahre), becomes a refuge for old family friend Lila Green (Jean Lichty).
Lila's been on the road for 11 years acting with what sounds like a third-rate troupe and looks that way, too, when members drop by for a short visit and include grand dame-ish Olga St. Valentine (Patricia Hodges), swishy Ronny Cavendish (Marty Thomas) and, most menacing of all, Lila's swain Ricky Powers (Jonathan Stewart).
They don't stay long but Lila does, and her taking up nervous residence signals that something could happen between her and hormone-explosive Kenny. It doesn't fall out in the first act, at the end of which not much has happened besides several minor mother-son squabbles. Well, he's the representative of rural dissatisfaction that sent Inge to the big city to write about the malcontents back home.
It's in the second act when all heck breaks loose. The delayed late night encounter between Kenny and Lila occurs while Helen, off to an evangelist's event, is inexplicably gone until the morning after. That upstage bedroom development is expected. Not expected--though necessary to foment the stakes-raising Inge needs -- is a handy but uncharacteristic psychological turn from Kenny that leaves all three focal figures at, as Inge's title all but promises, a loss. And not only at a loss but on their own with undetermined prospects.
Matters aren't much improved by the acting on view either. Hedwall is the best of the lot, giving a solid account of a widow trying to do the best by a boy she doesn't fully understand. Kayre is effective on Kenny's frustrations. Geoffrey Perri as Kenny's stuck-in-adolescence pal has some nice moments. The others range from fair to poor.
Harry Feiner is responsible for the sets and lights and, with Ido Levran, the projections design. (On the back wall is a view of a small town street with clouds moving across the sky above.) The '30s living room (with upstage bedroom) certainly looks authentic and features a find of a period sofa. (Where did Feiner come by something so perfect?) It's quibbling to point out that a candlestick telephone -- the sort with the long neck -- might be more appropriate for the time and place.
Wackerman and the La Femme crowd haven't done Inge much of a favor by bringing this one back. It's more like a disfavor. With The Acting Company's 2013 dusting off of the playwright's deficient 1963 Natural Affection as well as the mediocre Roundabout look at his Picnic, also in 2013, the producing outfits give the impression of joining a (surely unintended) campaign to confirm Inge's later reassessment as overrated in his heyday.
Let's just say the time has come for someone(s) to do right by The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. A first-rate production of that one would help restore at least some of the respect Inge once had.