How do we contend with the frustration of our desires, with our failure to achieve them? How do we access desires that have been submerged beneath the expectations of polite society?
American Theatre Company’s Will Davis offers a quiet meditation on the desperation of stymied desires, and the pain of disappointment. Melodic and gestural, Davis’s production of William Inge’s 1953 Picnic moves through the lives of a tightly knit community with a tenderness that, in Davis’s own words, washes over the audience.
From the first ghostly notes pulled from the piano by Laura McKenzie’s Mrs. Potts, a disquiet enters the audience as a group of ethereally costumed actors huddle together to deliver the play’s first lines. Joe Schermoly’s design provides just enough of an image to place these characters in the dissipated memory of small-town Kansas, the huge nostalgic blooms on faded carpet somehow grounding the softly choreographed moments captured gracefully by the efforts of Evvie Allison and Will Davis.
As the actors begin to fold and fold and fold the laundry that populated the stage at the top of the play, a picture of a small town comes to light. The social scaffolding that restrains and shapes their desires is revealed, pointed to perhaps too heavily by choreographed actions shared by the cast. With the entrance of Hal, played by a bouncing and jovial Molly Brennan, the audience can only watch as the vibrating architecture of gender and class expectations are exploded. In each moment, however, Davis refuses to leave anyone behind, resolutely meeting each character where they are and never relinquishing his deep care for each imagined life. In particular, the performances of Patricia Kane, Michael Turrentine and Alexia Jasmene articulate and crystallize the ache of stunted and dammed desire. Each of these characters suffer from the crush of gender and class constructions that compel them to motivate themselves by desires that are seemingly always just out of their reach, and they are played with aplomb by all three of them.
As for the star couple of this community, Jose Nateras and Malic White deliver a performance that highlight the finality of the choices we make about our wants. Nateras’s Alan walks the line that he has drawn for himself, never getting close enough to touch the people whose arms he might fall into, Hal and Madge, giving him all the space he needs to lash out when disappointment comes knocking. White’s Madge similarly uses the tower that has been built for her to launch away from the life she has been compelled to lead, best delivered by the stoic and unapologetic moment that Madge puts on Hal’s forgotten boots.
The only character who seemingly has any recourse to come and go as he pleases, and to move through desire with any kind of agency is Howard, played beautifully by Robert Cornelius.
This production is challenging, yet tender. By the end, when the audience faces a tiny city, that took perhaps 10 seconds too long to construct, there is a quietness that reaches out for profound solace. If only that solace would reach back.
Picnic runs at American Theatre Company. 1909 W. Byron, through April 23. Tickets are $38.