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William Inge’s “Picnic” Poorly Staged at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

In the last century, America gave birth to the greatest playwrights of all time. Included in that rarified category are Arthur Miller (“Death of a Salesman,”) Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “The Iceman Cometh,”) Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Zoo Story,”)
Sam Shepard (“Buried Child,” “Fool for Love,”) Thornton Wilder (“Our Town,” “The Skin of Our Teeth.”) Neil Simon (“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Barefoot in the Park,”) David Mamet (“Glengarry, Glen Ross,” “American Buffalo,”) August Wilson (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,”) and Tony Kushner (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” “Angels in America: Perestroika,”) and, of course, William Inge’s “Come Back Little Sheba, “Bus Stop’” and his timeless “Picnic,” for which he was feted with a Pulitzer Prize.”

Rogelio Douglas III as ‘Bomber’ and Symphony Canady as ‘Millie Owens’ in William Inge’s ‘PICNIC.”

To give you a historic perspective, Inge’s iconic “Picnic” premiered in New York in 1953 featuring Ralph Meeker, Eileen Heckart, Arthur O’Connell, Janice Rule, Reta Shaw, Kim Stanley and a very young unknown Paul Newman who wanted the leading role but was rejected because the director didn’t think he had the physique to fit the part but eventually he did take over the lead. Inge won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for that work and Logan received a Tony Award for Best Director. The play also won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the season. Eventually, Josh Logan directed the film starring William Holden and Kim Novak and was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, scoring two wins. The latest iteration is the subject of my review.

So, to be absolutely clear, this is not your William Holden, Kim Novak award-winning version of “PICNIC.” What you have instead, is a rather amateurish rendering of this American classic. I dare say that the playwright is probably turning over in his grave wondering how his play, under the spotty direction of John Farmanesh–Bocca, morphed into a high school or even a middle school version.

Briefly, the story takes place in a small Kansas town. It’s the day before the annual Labor Day celebration and a young drifter named Hal (Monti D. Washington) arrives in town and, in exchange for lodgings in a run-down boarding house, does odd jobs for the owner, Mrs. Helen Potts, skillfully played by Rosemary Thomas. He also wants to reconnect with an old college buddy, Alan Seymour, played by Ahkei Togun, who is in love with the beautiful Madge Owens (Mattie Harris Lowe.) Despite being rough around the edges, the women all practically swoon as they behold his shirtless arms and chest. Sadly, despite his physique, Mr. Washington did not get the guidance he needed from director John Farmanesh-Bocca who failed to help him navigate through the layers of a complex character, which is basically true of most of the performances. The only two actors who gave believable performances were Thomas’ character of as Mrs. Potts, who despite being an older woman, registers sheer delight at the vision of this hunky young man performing odd tasks around the yard. The other excellent performance was rendered by Derrick Parker as Howard, boyfriend of the spinster school teacher Rosemary, played by Sydney A. Mason. Unlike Parker, whose performance is fully actualized, she has but a few moments of truth, which is mostly replaced with histrionics.

Monti Washington as Hal Carter and Rosemary Thomas as Mrs. Helen Potts in William Inge’s “PICNIC” on stage at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble through Sunday, May 28, 2023.

The two sisters, Millie and Madge were played by Symphony Canady and Mattie Harris Lowe, respectively. Millie’s characterization of a young girl was silly, pushed and not really believable. Sad to say that the weakest performance of the evening was given by Lowe who might be good cinematically, but definitely is not a theatrical actor. Most of the time she delivered her dialogue, which never transcended “line readings,” as though she was in front of a camera instead of on stage or as they say in the “biz,” she failed to leap the invisible footlights. Beautiful yes. But it would have been lovely if she had been directed to deliver a professional performance. Millie and Madge’s mom Flo Owens is played by Yolanda Snowball who sometimes gets under the text to deliver an actualized performance. As for the rest of the cast, the character of Alan Seymour, Hal’s old college buddy is played Ahkei Togun who is in love with Madge. The Boyish character of Bomber, who is smitten with Millie, is played by Rogelio Douglas III. Most of the cast, deliver nothing more than line readings with the pacing so slow, you could drive a truck between cues. Other members of the ensemble include, Erika L. Holmes and Caitlin O’Grady, who alternates with Lowe in the role of Madge.

Mounting a production is more than blocking the actors, having them learn their lines, and excellent production values, which this production does have, starting with the excellent set design by Frederica Nascimento, lighting design; Chu-Hsuan Chang; Mylette Nora costumes, sound design, Farmanesh-Bocca, Jeff Gardner, and Adam Phelan, and choreography by John Farmanesh-Bocca and Briana Price. Clearly, the director has good technical skills but is missing the vital skill at guiding actors in developing believable, professional characters.

L-R: Yolanda Snowball as ‘Flo Owens’ with her daughters ‘Madge’ (Mattie Harris Lowe) and ‘Millie’ (Symphony Canady.)

Don’t ask me why these words are spinning around in my head, but it’s the line Marlon Brando says to the undertaker when he brings his son Sonny’s battered body to the funeral director: “Look what they did to my boy” or if Inge were alive, he might say: “Look what they did to my play.”

“PICNIC”
Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90025
Written by: William Inge
Directed by: John Farmanesh–Bocca
Run:
Friday, Saturday: 8:00pm
Sunday: 2:00 pm
Monday: 8:00 pm – April & May 8
Running Time 2 hours 10 mins including intermission
Closing: Sunday, May 28, 2023
Tickets: $$25-$40
310.477
-2055, Ext. 2
www.OdysseyTheatre.com
(Call the box office for information on
post-performance discussions
& complimentary wine and snacks.

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