Ross Valley Players (RVP) open their 93rd season with William Inge’s American Classic Picnic, one of this reviewer’s favorite plays.
The plot is deceptively simple. It’s Labor Day 1953 in Independence, KS, where town widows Flo Owens (Tori Truss) and Helen Potts (Tamar Cohn) have planned a picnic for the youth. There is a high hope from Flo and begrudging expectation from younger daughter, Millie (Lizzy Bies), that rich collegiate Alan Seymour (Evan Held) will propose to town beauty Madge Owens (Dale Leonheart).
Meanwhile, with school starting the next day, spinster Rosemary Sydney (Valerie Weak) is catching up with old and new colleagues (Jen Marte and Raysheina de Leon-Ruhs) and hoping that her beau, Howard Bevans (Steve Price), will show up sober. Life-altering chaos ensues when handsome Hal Carter (Max Carpenter) arrives in town.
Based on school teachers who boarded with his mother, Inge wrote Picnic as a condemnation of the dehumanizing of outcasts. Inge himself was no stranger to this theme. As he was closeted most of his life, Picnic speaks of his isolation as well as theirs.
With such deep themes and beautiful writing, it is hard to understand how director Adrian Elfenbaum could have missed the mark so widely. Inge’s meticulous dissection of American society has been reduced to a series of shouting matches.
Hal Carter is supposed to be the apple on the tree of Eden and confident in his own languid sensuality, but Carpenter lacks this confidence. Even worse, Hal’s iconic cowboy boots are replaced with modern work boots, and the lack of chemistry between Carpenter and Leonhart makes the love scenes difficult to watch.
Bies and Held are talented, well-grounded actors who understand the humor, vulnerability and gravitas of the material. They anchor this production and are well worth watching. Cohn, Truss and Price are in a different show, but all three deliver competent performances that would have benefited from stronger direction and consistent dialects.
Overall, this is a case of a good script being paired with the wrong director, which is a shame. There are some good performances here, plus some interesting design concepts in Tom O’Brien’s monotone abstraction of the set, but in the end it’s just no picnic.
‘Picnic’ runs through Oct. 9 at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Thurs, 7:30pm; Fri. & Sat., 8pm; Sun., 2pm. $15–$30. 415.456.9555. Masking is required. rossvalleyplayers.com