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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Delightful ‘Picnic’

Theater Review

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Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has embarked on an innovative collaboration with UW-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts Department of Theatre by casting students and faculty members in its production of Picnic, which opened last weekend. William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy tells the story of life in a rural Kansas town over Labor Day and the ensuing events when a handsome young drifter shows up and changes the lives of those he encounters within a 24-hour period. This theatrical partnership bodes well for future productions, given the strength of its acting ensemble and direction (C. Michael Wright) and ability to underscore Inge’s themes of innocence lost and life reclaimed.

Within two hours and 15 minutes (including two intermissions), Picnic challenges the audience’s understanding of traditional gender roles and the ideas of beauty and youth through the love-struck eyes of its tragic heroes, the macho hunk Hal Carter (well played by Andrew Edwin Voss) and the prettiest girl in town, Madge Owens (local stage veteran Emily Vitrano in some of her best work to date). While Madge’s mother has dreams of her daughter marrying Alan, the settled, wealthy boyfriend, Madge yearns for a life beyond the well-worn routine of small-town living. “Every time I hear that train comin’ into town, I get a true feeling of excitement—right here,” Madge says as she points toward her heart at the start of Picnic in a brilliant moment of foreshadowing. Madge finds that there’s more to life—and herself—than physical beauty while bad-boy Hal is forced to face his own actions amid all his bragging and womanizing.

UWM faculty Jenny Wanasek (Mrs. Owens), Raeleen McMillion (the neighbor Mrs. Potts) and Bill Watson (Howard Bevans) anchor the cast while Tami Workentin’s spinster schoolteacher, Rosemary, excels in running the range of emotions from her tough faade to her yearning for marriage to Howard. UWM senior April Paul is a standout as Madge’s tomboyish, book-smart younger sister Millie, who truly transforms herself, physically and otherwise. (Keep an eye on this fine young actor.)

R.H. Graham’s stationary set design of two neighboring back porches within calling distance exemplifies the claustrophobic small-town setting where everybody must know everyone’s else’s business—and worry about what other people will think and discover. There are many furtive glances as characters take a swig of illegal whiskey or sneak off for some “romance.” And most important: Who will go with which person to the picnic? And what will happen there?

“I think we plan picnics to let something thrilling and exciting happen to us,” Mrs. Potts says.

She’s right. And this Picnic is well worth attending.

Picnic runs through Nov. 1 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.