A handsome stranger sparks the fire, but it’s the women who shine brightly through “Picnic.”
Paul Newman made his Broadway debut in William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, first as the handsome stranger’s college friend, Alan Seymour, before stepping into the lead role of Hal Carter.
He’s a drifter who lands in a small Kansas town the morning of a neighborhood Labor Day picnic. It’s a coming-of-age story in which Hal comes into town to look for work and to visit Alan, who is dating Madge Owens and hopes to marry her. However, when neighbor lady Helen Potts hires Hal to do odd jobs, he casts his eye on Madge and she turns to him. Tempers flare as passions and jealousy ignite, creating a volatile situation that lasts into the night and the following day.
It’s set in the early 1950s, but the themes remain relevant.
“It’s this 24-hour slice of life kind of show,” said director Rachel Korach Howell, 38, of Iowa City. “To me, it feels fairly progressive for the time. Being a female-heavy show in general is almost unheard of in theater at all, so it’s pretty awesome getting involved in this show, reading it, and falling in love with these women.”
Passion projects are her special interest. She studied theater at the University of Iowa, where she continues to direct some gallery and festival shows. She also has directed for the Iowa City Community Theatre and Giving Tree Theater in Marion, and is a co-founder of Iowa City’s Fourth Room Theatre troupe.
She tossed her hat in Brucemore’s ring after hearing that the Classics troupe was opening up new opportunities for actors and directors in the area, and enjoyed diving into the pool of classic American drama.
“I’m a firm believer that art and artistic expression reflects change and it saves people, and we equate a lot of that with more contemporary pieces that come out, because they’re more topical with current issues. ‘Picnic’ to me felt very topical even though it’s from 65 years ago. It felt like a really important show to do,” she said.
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“I really love women-heavy casts, because they are so hard to find, and we have so many talented women that deserve to have more opportunities — especially with the current scenario — the Me Too Movement and Time’s Up — I felt like we needed to hear from women. I feel like William Inge actually did a really good job writing these women.”
She and her show colleagues, including 11 actors from across the Corridor, are putting their own interpretation on the show, which she says is full of romance, violence, comedy and tears.
“Every director, every company collaborates and creates a different vision of everything that’s published on the page,” she said. “It was really important to me and to the team to showcase how strong and incredible these women were, especially in 1953 — what they have to live with, what they go through, how they have to shove everything down that we talk about a lot more freely now.
“There has been some change, but we’re still dealing with these things. We’re still dealing with reputations and class disparity, and the way we treat women like property. It’s all very current. It’s important to be reminded that yes, we have come far, but we have a long way to go.”
So while most synopses list Hal as the main character, she doesn’t see it that way.
“In my interpretation, (Hal) is a catalyst — not the lead character, necessarily,” Howell said. “We’re focusing on the women and the journey they’re taking. It’s really about what his presence does. It starts this domino effect reawakening these women or awakening for first time certain things that they’ve never felt before, allowing for more importance of love and romance and forgiving yourself for mistakes in the past. All of these things kind of snowball, because it literally is his presence which starts all this.
“Every single person has a really beautiful shift, a really wonderful maturity. They’re just normal people, and we’re all normal people, so it sounds like our story. I fell in love once, and it happens onstage. I’ve been embarrassed by my mom, I’ve broken someone’s heart — I feel like there’s a large chunk of me up there. I can sit in the audience and watch it and feel those things, and feel like I know those people, because they’re just people. Every one of those ‘just normal people’ goes through such significant and complex changes.
“It looks so deceptively simple on the page, but there’s so much happening underneath. We’re always taught, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ but we do it every day — we do it to everybody we meet, because it’s easier,” she said.
“Something that’s really wonderful about this play is that it helps remind you that there is so much going on underneath the surface that we don’t pay attention to, because we don’t have time or we don’t have the energy. I think it’s really important to remember the fact that we just don’t know. But what we do know is what’s going on beneath the surface for any other human being is just as complex, if not more so, than what’s going inside of ourselves.”
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WHAT: Classics at Brucemore: “Picnic”
WHERE: Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater at Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 12 to 14 and July 19 to 21
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TICKETS: $20 adults, $15 students in advance, $25 gate, Brucemore Visitor Center, (319) 362-7375 or Brucemore.org
EXTRAS: Gates open 6:30 p.m.; bring picnics, beverages, lawn chairs and blankets