By PAM HARBAUGH
It’s a hot day on the Kansas plains in 1952 when Helen Potts fans herself with her handkerchief and wishes out loud that a cyclone would come by to cool things off. She gets that cyclone, but it comes in the person of a handsome, bare-chested drifter who whips up passion, leaving in shambles the lives of seven people.
And the changes are not for the good looking lead characters, but for all in William Inge’s play “Picnic.” We see that clearly in Melbourne Civic Theatre’s carefully considered production as it drives home the important point that dreams and passions beat in the heart of every human.
Mr. Inge, one of America’s most lauded playwrights, won a Pulitzer Prize for “Picnic” in 1953, the same year a fellow midwesterner, Ernest Hemingway, won a Pulitzer for his story, “The Old Man and the Sea.” It was the so-called “Century of the Common Man,” made epic as well by other American artists, such as composer Aaron Copland, photographer Dorothea Lange and artist Thomas Hart Benton.
In “Picnic,” scenic and lighting designer Alan Selby brings us into a vivid, artful recreation of 1952 rural Kansas. A swing hangs from a tree; a screen door bangs shut; beyond that, old cooking tools stand ready for someone to whip up some biscuits or a cherry pie. Pushing us further into memory is Wendy Reader’s sound design with the whistles of a lonesome train, a dog barking in the distance and crickets announcing night drawing close.
It is the day before the annual Labor Day picnic. The drifter, Hal (handsome and heartfelt Damon Dennin) saunters in. He’s no stranger to looking through a garbage can for his next meal. But this time, he has a new friend in Helen Potts (the always tender and endearing Tori Smith) who has fed him well in exchange for some handy man work.
We meet Madge, a soul searching young lady who dreams of the places those whistling trains are heading rather than dreaming of a comfortable life with Alan, the well-to-do young man her mother wants her to marry. Madge (a beautiful and subtly smouldering Mary Carson Wouters), is drawn to Alan (wonderfully complex Alexander Edwards) but it is passion for which she thirsts.
It comes as no surprise that Hal is the man who brings the fireworks into her life.
Director Peg Girard unfolds the story with a steady hand, coaxing out believable portrayals imbued with human truth. Acts one and two build, setting us up for the final act in which the storm hits and sends lives in directions quite different from what the characters expected.
The embrace between Hal and Madge steams with romance. That comes on the heels of a desperate scene between uptight schoolteacher Rosemary Sidney (Emily Pickens in full throttle here) who beseeches and middle-aged businessman Howard Bevens (a poignant and warmly funny Pete Jacobsen) to marry her.
We’re left considering two other major characters — Madge’s sister, Millie (winningly portrayed by Nathaly Morales) and Madge’s mother, Flo (Susan Suomi at her compelling best). Flo considers her own misguided footsteps and warns Madge not to do the same. While we ache over Flo’s world going upside down, we cheer for Millie, who sets her sights on a better life and we know that after the storm passes, she will get it.
After all, this was a time when America started to look forward. Yes, there were still lingering issues from the Great Depression and World War II. The Red Scare was getting hold. Indeed, change was a storm on the near horizon.
This is classic American drama and MCT’s evocative production brings the play and the era to eloquent life.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Picnic” runs through July 5 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $25 general and $23 for students, seniors and military. Call 321-723-6935 or visit www.MyMCT.org.