Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Also see Jeffrey's review of Disgraced
William Inge: The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Come Back Little Sheba, Bus Stop. Beautifully constructed plays, all. If only directors could trust what was written and not try new visions, or "improvements."
The first thing one sees when entering the Dramaworks theatre is one of the most beautiful sets, by Michael Amico, ever designed. Just superb. As the play progresses, the technical attributes keep on coming: Brian O'Keefe's costumes are of the period and sewn with such care, you can see the craftsmanship involved. Just superb, again. A play taking place in Kansas in "the early '50s" relies heavily on lighting to show different times of day as well as weather, and Donald Edmund Thomas has done a masterful job, ensuring our understanding of Inge's dialogue and mood changes. Dramaworks has some noticeable "dead spots," sound-wise, and I and the people around me had trouble throughout catching everyone's lines, but the additional effects of various autos, trains and, yes, barking dogs, are well done by sound designer Steve Brush.
A gorgeous presentation of a small town's reaction when a wanderer (Merlin Huff) enters their midst, Picnic represents love found and love lost. Hal, the aforementioned wanderer, arrives to the delight of all "the womenfolk." He and Madge, "the prettiest girl in town" (Kelly Gibson), wind up sharing their attraction, much to the consternation of a fellow fraternity brother of his, Alan (Taylor Miller), who is Madge's intended.
There is a distinct lack of chemistry between Mr. Huff and Ms. Gibson. If their director, William Hayes, had not (it appears) over-directed them "within an inch of their lives," there could have been more spontaneity and passion (which is sorely missing) as well as some much needed charisma on both parts. The actors seem to be talented and in time, I am sure, will gain the confidence they need to convey the yearning and loneliness so greatly needed.
As the middle-aged "spinster" Rosemary, so memorably played in the film by Rosalind Russell, Margery Lowe gives one of the two performance highlights of the evening. At first I was confused by her take on the role. She seems like a faded chorine (aka "flapper") desperately trying, against all of her many protestations, to hold on to the last vestiges of her long-gone youth. Flitting around the stage like an uncaged bird, Lowe broke my heart in the memorable scene when Rosemary, literally, begs her beau Howard (Michael McKeever in a wonderfully modulated performance) to marry her. I am not used to seeing these two roles played by younger actors, but Mr. Hayes made a choice to cast younger and it definitely works in his favor. The other acting highlight is Taylor Miller as Alan. Not one false move, not one hint of "acting," his is a relaxed, comfortable, and well-thought out interpretation.
Patti Gardner as Madge's mom is lovely, determined, and well-aware of both her daughters' sensibilities. Gardner is one of our finest actresses in South Florida and it's nice to see her cast against type (she's a beautiful woman) and for her to run with it. Elizabeth Dimon, playing Helen the woman next door, is unaffected and lovable. She always is (when the role calls for it.) And then there's Millie. The toughest role in the play, it is performed by Maren Searle. Starting the play off in braids and an endearing diffidence, Searle is quite convincing as the 16-year-old tomboy of Mr. Inge's pen. Irascible, intelligent and very, very smart, her Millie is ripe for disappointment. The problem is when she transforms out of jeans and pigtails into a dress, a soft hairdo, and the confusion of, well, a 16 year old. She looks her actual age and, while I was initially off-put, she ultimately won me over.
As I mentioned at the top, this is a three-act play. Mr. Hayes has combined acts one and two for 85 minutes, has an intermission, and then a 35 minute act three. I do wish that directors and producers would trust their audiences. Dramaworks pulls a sophisticated, knowledgeable following. Do the play in three acts with two intermissions. I am beseeching him to do so because they are not only doing History Boys this season but, in my mind, the greatest play ever written, Long Day's Journey Into Night. This is one play that must be done as written. Your Dramaworks audiences deserves it.
Picnic runs through November 8th, 2015, at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis ST., West Palm Beach, FL. Tickets are $64. 561-514-4042 or palmbeachdramaworks.org