The Feminine Mistake

When the long-awaited revival of Hair, the quintessential Sixties musical, opened in London two weeks ago, the critics unanimously agreed on one thing: not all plays wear well. Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph summed up the expensive mistake succinctly: "It would have been far kinder to have let Hair linger happily in the memory of old hippies rather than digging it up and exposing it to the cruel light of day." Critic Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail threw a particularly heavy shovel of dirt on the musical's coffin, commenting that he could think of "few more futile or embarrassing exercises than to expect the hard-nosed Nineties generation to take this woozy left-over aberration from Sixties hippiedom seriously."

Does this mean that all pieces that derived their basic setting from other historical periods don't work today? Obviously not. Hamlet appears to do quite well, even though most audiences aren't Danish and don't have kings for fathers and uncles. On the other hand, Shakespeare's tale of how indecision can lead to ruin presents a universal theme, a quality required for all true art. And although Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, the main character Willy Loman, a man with grandiose dreams who cannot settle for a pedestrian life, represents the frustrated and underpaid work force of today just as acutely as he did then.

Good writers compose entertaining pieces for their specific time period; great ones offer lasting testaments of wisdom. William Inge falls into the former category, so much so that Michael Hall's ill-conceived revival of the playwright's 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic goes beyond an "embarrassing exercise" to become a downright offensive one.

Everything is diminished by the foundation of the material itself, although Hall's fine production, from the cozy country set by Frank Bennett to the almost uniformly excellent cast, can't be faulted. Revivals of plays -- as opposed to musicals -- are not produced because of a good ticket-selling past, but because a script contains keen wit or speaks to nearly everyone, including the most contemporary of audiences. But in the published program that accompanies this production, Hall, the artistic director of the Caldwell Theatre Company, makes this mistaken claim: "Even today, Inge's best plays reveal a keen understanding of Middle America's hopes, dreams and values." Oh, really?

At the same time, Hall's notes about Picnic, printed in the theater's promotional brochure, unintentionally sum up the main problem. First, he quotes the author. "The play," writes Inge, "simply tells the story of what happens to a couple of households composed entirely of women leading a life of guarded femininity when an obstreperously virile youth arrives in their midst and proceeds to change in varying degrees the tenor of their various lives." Then Hall proceeds to add more anachronistic sentiments by noting that "Inge's women want to be liberated; their need for the male animal, however, alters the way in which they seek personal freedom."

Pay attention, supporters of Gloria Steinem and Murphy Brown. According to the script of Picnic, your lives and careers are useless without that male animal. It's time to admit that you've led a frustrating life of "guarded femininity."

In short, that's what the play is about. Unfortunately this production was not directed for laughs. In a small Kansas town, several women sit on their adjoining back porches and literally wait for life (read, men) to arrive. In one house, old Mrs. Potts resides with her mother and pines away for the one night of married bliss she enjoyed before Mom drove her hubby away. Next door, Madge Owens, the prettiest girl in town, seems destined to marry wealthy Alan, but longs for true passion with a beast-like male. Her sister, Millie, reads great novels and plans to attend college, but would trade it all in for a cuter bod and a hot beau. The girls' mom, Flo, rails against men, but still itches for her wild, alcoholic ex-spouse.

Most frustrated of them all is Rosemary, the Owenses' boarder and a schoolteacher (a word synonymous in this town with spinster); she hates dining with the "girls" and will even accept a proposal from the sloppy-drunk salesman Howard, who occasionally takes her out for some discreet necking. In the second act, Rosemary literally begs Howard to marry her and eventually traps him into it; at the end of the play, Millie cries that she'll have to write great novels and try not to think about love and marriage -- which, for everyone here, appears to be a woman's only true goal. The notion that a female could actually have a marriage and a career apparently never occurred to Inge.

The plot's dramatic action arrives in the form of Hal, an out-of-work hunk, who comes to town to find a job and temporarily helps out Mrs. Potts with household chores. Freely displaying a great body, swiveling hips, and smooth come-on lines, Hal turns every one of these femmes on with a vengeance, but eventually picks cute little Madge, who finally "becomes a woman" in his arms.

If director Hall feels, as he writes in his brochure, that Picnic is a special play about the "American heart and American heartland," then he's been watching too much tabloid television and not traveling enough. Take it from one who's just recently spent a bit of time in Salina, Kansas -- heartland America, for sure: many of the women there had divorced repressive mates and opened their own businesses. Amazingly enough, they claimed to be much happier than they were with their male animals.

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