There is a freshness, a sort of right-now-ness with Palm Beach Dramaworks' production of "Picnic," playing through Nov. 8 at the West Palm Beach theater.
That is saying something, since the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Inge is drenched in 1950s groupthink, or so we've been led to believe by countless revivals and the 1955 movie version starring Kim Novak and William Holden. But at Dramaworks, director William Hayes has skimmed all the melodrama off the top and revealed something that reads truer, feels timeless and is much funnier than memory serves.
The story opens on the morning of a Labor Day picnic in a small Kansas town in the early 1950s. Drifter Hal Carter (Merlin Huff) blows into town and does a few odd jobs — always sans shirt — for soft touch Helen Potts (Elizabeth Dimon). Hal picked this town in order to visit his old fraternity buddy Alan Seymour (Taylor Miller), the scion of one of the town's richest families. Alan is dating town beauty queen Madge Owens (Kelly Gibson), who lives next door to Helen Potts with her younger bookworm sister, Millie Owens (Maren Searle), and their mother, Flo Owens (Patti Gardner).
The Owens have a boarder living with them, school teacher Rosemary Sydney (Margery Lowe), who is dating store owner Howard Bevans (Michael McKeever). At first, everyone is more or less entertained by Hal's egocentric boasts, save for Flo, who is suspicious, and Alan, who is embarrassed.
It isn't long before the longing starts. Hal's studly charms affect all the women living in neighboring houses, and his appearance in town sets off the men, too. Soon, Inge's themes of loneliness, youth, beauty, aspiration come into sharp relief. But with the naturalistic pacing and the keep-it-real acting, you're not jolted from one "Ta-dah!" moment to the next. It's just little tensions that pop up and then fade into the undercurrent, little wrinkles that rise up and then are smoothed back down, like a breeze striking up a dust devil — right up until all that repression goes, "Pop!"
Dramaworks' "Picnic" is a master class in pacing and acting. Granted, there is a dropped moment ramping up to the climax, but by then, you're all in and let the small stuff go. In the first act, you begin to feel anything can happen, that everything is on the table, that maybe the director will just up and change the outcome in the final act. If things congeal just a tad before the end, well, the momentum carries through and the characters resonate enough to see us through satisfactorily.
That aside, this production is a revelation. That much is evident to anyone, as is the top-notch design from the creative team, particularly Michael Amico's sets and Steve Brush's sound. What is not so apparent is how this production manages to effortlessly engage an audience in these attention-deficit times for three acts over two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
"Picnic" is running through Nov. 8 at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Tickets cost $64. To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org