When the rugged drifter played by William Holden drops off a freight train in the opening scene of the 1955 film version of William Inge's Picnic, he finds himself in a rolling wasteland dotted with weather-beaten grain silos and dominated by an oppressive and endless Kansas sky. It is an archetypal American landscape where the only things growing are growing old. Sadly, Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of heartbreak in the heartland is aging even less gracefully. Cluttered with dated colloquialisms ("golly" used repeatedly as invective) and equally dated notions of sexual repression, Picnic is an artifact of a simpler and considerably less interesting time. Despite the resuscitative efforts of director Bain Boehlke, who helmed a successful revival of Inge's Bus Stop in 1996, the Jungle Theater's new production of Picnic does little to brush the dust off a play that now seems doomed to follow Main Street America into irrelevance.
In contrast to the studied decay of the 1955 film, the Jungle's Picnic takes place in what appears to be the setting for a particularly bland Norman Rockwell painting, complete with a picket fence and a tattered kite tangled in drooping power lines (a nice touch in Boehlke's Spartan set design). As the play commences, the Holden character, a brawny young man named Hal (Galway McCullough), has already arrived in town and is doing odd jobs for a sweet old lady named Mrs. Potts (Barbara June Patterson). Hal is the model for a now-familiar Hollywood type: the rebellious and vaguely dangerous kid in the white T-shirt who communicates primarily by flexing his pectoral muscles. "Ma'am," he drawls to his elderly benefactor, "is it okay if I start a fire in the back yard?"
And indeed he does. In Inge's backwater burg, the sight of a shiftless, shirtless youth stirs up considerable excitement. Both the town beauty Madge Owens (Karla Reck) and her tomboyish younger sister Millie (Daisy Macklin) immediately fall into Hal's orbit. Despite the protests of Madge's bitter mother (Buffy Sedlachek) and the girl's involvement with the affluent, affable, and thus impotent Alan Seymour (Scott MacKenzie), it is obvious from the moment Madge and Hal lock eyes across the back yard that they are destined to end in each other's arms. It is one of the troubling ironies in Inge's tale of star-crossed love that while Madge resents the fact that she is valued only for her looks, she falls for a boy because he resembles a Greek statue.
As usual, lust springs eternal. As the town prepares for the titular picnic, the beauty queen and the rebel drift inevitably toward one another. Where in the early scenes McCullough seems intent on impersonating Elvis, by the eve of the picnic he has built Hal into a hybrid of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. The only thing Hal owns in the world is a pair of scuffed cowboy boots bequeathed him by his father, so taking possession of Madge comes to represent a coup over the arrogant college frat boys who valued him only for his athletic prowess. For her part, Madge is dreaming of a way out of her one-horse town and an effectively arranged marriage to Alan, who calls her "Delilah" in rather obvious reference to the Biblical betrayer of marital fidelity (and the metaphorical castrator of the hero). She nevertheless embodies the old romance-novel stereotype of the independent woman who just can't help swooning like a schoolgirl when a big, strong man flashes her a smile. Thankfully, Reck resists the temptation to play Madge as a dizzy ingénue and manages to imbue her with a restless intelligence. It is a complex enough reading that when she and Hal slow-dance beneath the stars, we see the blooming affair as something more than the meeting of unsatisfied libidos. Like most young love, it is half hope and half desperation.
In Picnic as in all of his work, Inge reveals an obsession with innocence lost. It is perhaps a reflection of a disenchantment with postwar society that urged people to marry young or die lonely. More likely, it is a manifestation of Inge's melancholy (he struggled with booze, self-pity, and waning talent for decades before taking his own life). As in every Inge play, time is the great enemy of both youth and love. In the case of Picnic, the specter of mortality intrudes in the person of Rosemary Sydney (Claudia Wilkens), an unmarried and embittered schoolmarm. With a bottle of bootleg liquor supplied by her portly beau Howard (John McNeil), Rosemary gets tipsy, tries to seduce Hal, then strikes out at him with all the pent-up energy of a half-century of sexual frustration. "You won't stay young forever!" she screams. "You'll end in the gutter. That's where you'll end and that's where you belong."
Later, after Rosemary has sobered up and given Howard what was once euphemistically referred to as a woman's "precious gift," she demands that he marry her. Demands turn to pleas, and a desperate hunger grows in her voice until she is left alone and sobbing "please" in the now-empty back yard. She is the victim of time and the corrective to the courtship of Madge and Hal: a woman for whom love means little more than finding some other body before dying alone. The emotional impact of the scene is, unfortunately, deflated by the light air of the rest of Boehlke's Picnic (and some scenery munching; Millie is purportedly a teenager, but she comes off as a prepubescent tornado in a pre-Ritalin age). Without a clear idea of whether Inge wrote a bittersweet comedy or a bittersweet drama, the Jungle's production vacillates indiscriminately between the two and never seems much more than a nostalgic paean to small-town America. And, as William Inge certainly learned, nostalgia only makes us miss what we never had.
Picnic runs through August 29 at the Jungle Theater; (612) 822-7063.