Yearning for more, small-town lives are no ‘Picnic’

“Picnic” by William Inge explores the closeted playwright’s yearning to experience something more, something that beckons from beyond the boundaries of social convention. Director Walter Niejadlik delivers an entertaining production of Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama on the Las Vegas Little Theatre’s Mainstage.

The conventional aspirations of small-town life form the backdrop as two households prepare for a Labor Day picnic. Flo Owens runs a boarding house with her two young daughters, Madge and Millie. Town darling Madge is dating Alan Seymour, handsome scion of one of the town’s wealthier businessmen.

To the lonely cry of a train whistle, Madge expresses a yearning for the excitement that lies beyond her town. Her tomboy kid sister also dreams of the big city. Flo is anxious for them not to make the same mistake in love that she did when she married their absent alcoholic father. She warns Madge that her beauty won’t last forever and that it “takes more than love to keep people happy.”

Blowing away this conventional scene like a Kansas cyclone is Hal Carter, a virile young drifter hired by Mrs. Potts across the way to help her with yard work in exchange for a meal. When, sweaty from his labor, he removes his T-shirt, a visceral excitement whips through the women like the wind.

No suspension of disbelief is required for Alex Olson’s portrayal of Hal’s physical attractiveness. Olson conveys Hal’s charming braggadocio while showing us the deeper sense of failure and resentment that lies beneath.

Hal has come to town to seek the help of his wealthy former college fraternity brother, Alan. Though he is condescending toward Hal, Aaron Barry plays Alan almost too sympathetically; nonetheless he is compelling in the role. Hal and Alan’s names are phonetically similar, and Niejadlik suggests a gay subtext in the physicality of their interaction. Barry’s Alan shows a haunting yearning to be free like Hal.

Danielle Jackowiak plays Madge with intelligent beauty. We sense her yearning for something more than to be Alan’s wife. Aviana Glover plays Millie — part tomboy, part scholar, part girl-crush — with a perfect balance of adolescent yearning and temper.

Teresa Fullerton plays neighbor Helen Potts almost like a Greek chorus who sees in these young people a better future against the tragedy of her past. Marni Montgomery-Blake’s Flo has a manipulative edge that seeks to fulfill her own dashed hopes through Madge.

Gillen Brey plays middle-aged teacher, Rosemary Sydney, who boards at Flo’s house. Brey didn’t seem right in the part of the independent-minded Rosemary; she was a little too Aunt Pittypat. But in an exciting reversal, Brey reveals the depth of bitterness and the heartbreaking desperation that lies beneath her self-sufficiency.

Another standout is Chris Davies as Howard Bevans, Rosemary’s beau. When Rosemary brays his name, Davies shows in Howard’s face his realization that this is the first day of the rest of his life, a very funny tragicomic moment.

Grain elevators and telephone poles recede into the distance like an Edward Hopper painting, adding an expressionistic backdrop to Ron Lindblom’s otherwise realistic scenic design. The lighting by Ginny Adams is lovely, especially in the moon glow scene.

This “Picnic” will remind audiences why we are grateful that the Las Vegas Little Theatre is an enduring community institution. Make a donation by June 1 and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh will match it, up to $25,000.

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