Halfway through Picnic, the 1953 William Inge comedy-drama playing at Judson Gym (in repertory with Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba), a hunky vagabond named Hal fidgets disconsolately while posing for a quick-sketch portrait. When the artist, thwarted by Hal’s restlessness, urges him to relax and be “natural,” Hal laments, “Gee, that’s hard.”
David T. Patterson as Hal and Hannah Elless as Millie, the high-school age artist, play this sequence exquisitely, with sensitivity to Inge’s subtext and the deep-seated pain of his characters. It’s the kind of seemingly insignificant moment—calm enough on the surface, with surging emotion underneath—that’s characteristic of Inge and that’s ideally served by the Transport Group’s rotating revival of two fine plays, which, like their author, have been undervalued for the better part of 50 years.
Both Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba depict small-town life in the Midwest soon after the end of World War II. It’s a society with scant ethnic diversity, where neighbors’ scrutiny of one another’s comings and goings serves to enforce puritanical morality or to encourage puritanical pretenses. In the judgmental, sexually repressed universe of Inge’s plays, being natural is indeed a formidable, if not insurmountable, challenge.
From 1950, when Come Back, Little Sheba opened on Broadway, to the 1961 release of the movie Splendor in the Grass (for which he won an Academy Award for best original screenplay), Inge (1913–73) was the American theater’s most commercially successful author of serious dramas. His insightful, character-driven plays involve addiction, sexual dysfunction, domestic discord, spousal abuse, Oedipal longing, incest, class conflict, and homosexuality, all portrayed with candor and empathy. Tennessee Williams (two years Inge’s senior) and Arthur Miller (two years his junior), with their blemished records of critical and commercial success, might reasonably have envied his decade-long winning streak.
By 1962, when Inge received the Oscar, a shadow had already fallen across his career; and critical disdain for his subsequent efforts, especially his Broadway plays of the 1960s, diminished his professional standing, contributing to the unhappiness of the decade that preceded his suicide. Inge’s plays from the 1950s have been revived periodically, but haven’t regained the prestige they had when new. The Transport Group’s revelatory reassessments of Come Back, Little Sheba and, especially, Picnic, perceptively directed by Jack Cummings III, are likely to go a long way toward restoring luster to the reputations of these plays and of the artist who created them. Although brief, this Off-Broadway engagement ought to give these dramas a new lease on the attention of playgoers in New York and beyond.
Sheba, Inge’s first Broadway effort, concerns an aging couple (Heather Mac Rae and Joseph Kolinski) driven apart by disillusion and the husband’s alcoholism and roving eye. Lola, the wife, pines for her lost dog, little Sheba, as she also regrets time’s toll on her looks and on the vitality of her marriage. With Shirley Booth as Lola, the play was a success on stage and screen, and the New York Drama Critics Circle named Inge the “most promising” dramatist making a Broadway debut that season.
Picnic depicts the lightning-bolt effect of Hal’s unexpected arrival on a handful of small-town types who, in Inge’s rendering, are colorful, individualized figures, drawn from his youth in Independence, Kan. In a single day and night, this charismatic drifter upends the precariously balanced lives and libidos of Flo (Michele Pawk), her daughters Millie and Madge (Ginna Le Vine), their boarder Rosemary (Emily Skinner), and neighbor Mrs. Potts (Mac Rae).
Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize and made Inge wealthy, but he regretted writing a supposedly upbeat conclusion under pressure from the original director Joshua Logan. Inge subsequently rewrote Picnic as Summer Brave, which reached Broadway after his death.
Cummings’s productions rescue both Sheba and Picnic from the customary bonds of realistic staging. Scenic designer Dane Laffrey has gone minimalist for Picnic, with a backdrop of vast plywood panels and seven battered metal yard chairs to suggest the adjoining backyards in which the play is set. By substituting an abstract playing space for the outdoor realism associated with the play since Logan’s original production (which was designed by the great Jo Mielziner), this revival stresses what’s universal rather than period-specific in Inge’s writing (especially the intricately rendered emotional states of his characters). Laffrey’s design for Sheba (played in the round as opposed to the frontal-oriented staging of Picnic) is more detailed but still simple, complementing Cummings’ directorial efforts to minimize the kitchen-sink melodrama which Daniel Mann emphasized in his 1952 film version.
Michael John LaChiusa’s moody, fanciful incidental music and R. Lee Kennedy’s complex lighting plots lend an expressionistic quality to both plays; and those expressionistic touches enhance the prominence of what’s poetic in Inge’s apt, unprepossessing text. Liberated from their usual ultra-naturalistic trappings, both plays appear richer and more significant than in recent revivals; and the characters’ time-bound slang, as well as Inge’s occasional dramaturgical grandiosity, seem somehow outside time, rather than out of date.
Cummings is a superb director with a knack for effective casting. One could write many column inches about his fortunate choices of actors—Skinner, Pawk, Mac Rae, Le Vine, on and on—and how felicitously those choices serve the two productions. But, as symbolic of Cummings’s masterly touch, let’s take Rowan Vickers, who plays Alan Seymour, Madge’s rich boyfriend in Picnic.
On Broadway and in the 1955 film, Alan was played by suave, handsome actors—Paul Newman and Cliff Robertson. Vickers is a dorky Alan; hardly a man who can expect to have any woman he wants (one might even call him the anti-Newman). Vickers is believable as the privileged fraternity man, but his looks, physique and hangdog demeanor shed light on why he’s so determined to capture and keep the prettiest girl in town. With Vickers as Alan, Madge’s conflict about her future, her sudden romantic waywardness, and her decisions at the play’s end are clearer, more sympathetic, and entirely believable.
The Transport Group’s Inge revivals are in a modest venue on Washington Square, with audiences limited to 84 playgoers a night. Situated so near the action, spectators are experiencing these dramas with an intimacy that previous mainstream revivals haven’t offered. The productions may sound small but, as an Inge renascence, they’re a milestone for American theater.
Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba play in repertory through April 23 at the Gym at Judson (243 Thompson St. at Washington Square South). Evening performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, and Thursday through Sunday. Matinees are 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 564-0333 or visit transportgroup.org.