CEDAR RAPIDS — The Classics at Bruce-more is staging a hot, steamy show for hot, steamy summer nights in the historic estate’s outdoor amphitheater.
Majestic old-growth pine trees, a sloping lawn and pond full of croaking frogs and chirping critters have provided the perfect backdrop for so many of the Classics staged there over 23 seasons, but especially so this year for William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Picnic.” The show opened to cheers Thursday and continues through July 21.
Set in a small Kansas town in the 1950s, a handsome ne’er-do-well drifter hops off a freight train and stirs up yearnings and trouble for women young and old who are drawn to him like moths to a flame. He has arrived in hopes of cashing in on a job through his fraternity brother’s millionaire family — and instead steals the girl his friend had hoped to marry.
Tempers flare as temperatures rise over the course of one day that changes the course of so many lives.
They’re all preparing for a big Labor Day picnic, which seems so benign, but is packed with more vinegar than a jar of pickles.
The action plays out on the front porches of the Owens and Potts households, both headed by women stuck with a burdensome life. Flo Owens (Kimberly Meyer Wilhelm) is raising her two daughters alone after wanton women and alcohol spirited away her husband. Mrs. Potts (Nina Swanson), a lonely caregiver for her elderly mother, finds odd jobs for Hal to do, and insists he would be much cooler if he took off his shirt. Swanson gives Mrs. Potts a flirty cougar quality that’s endearing and sad.
Director Rachel Korach Howell of Iowa City has allowed the women’s stories to take center stage, letting each one shine through Inge’s words.
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The drifter Hal (Greg Tucker) becomes the catalyst for chaos instead of the dominant character. His college friend Alan (Chris Walbert) doesn’t have as much stage time, but makes every moment count, especially when he realizes his girlfriend, Madge (McKayla Sturtz), is pulling away. He starts out in “aw, shucks” mode and unleashes his fury in the crushing final scenes.
Madge makes it clear early on that she’s not as serious about Alan as he is about her. She’s the prettiest girl in town, but not much of a scholar, so mother Flo is determined to see her daughter marry well. Handsome, rugged bad-boy Hal has a charm that Marge cannot deny, but terrifies her mother.
Madge already has a date for the picnic, so Mrs. Potts sets up Hal with Madge’s younger tomboy sister, Millie (Lily Palmersheim). Millie can see that Hal wishes he were escorting Madge to the picnic, but quickly develops a crush that has her vying with Madge for Hal’s attention.
While the sisters claw their way through a raging rivalry, Karle Jean Meyers as spinster schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney breaks the tension with some comic relief. Rosemary rents a room in the Owens home, but has her sights set on marrying shopkeeper and confirmed bachelor Howard (Rip Russell) so she can quit her job, because “wife” is a more coveted career. And yet, Meyers is equally adept at unleashing her fears and frustrations in an especially heartbreaking scene.
As people leave for the evening’s festivities, Madge and Hal are left behind, and their mutual desire leads them down a dangerous path that could ruin Flo’s hopes for her eldest daughter.
In an anguished confrontation the next morning, fears and secrets rise to the surface from a mother and daughter torn between past suffering and a future destined to hold more suffering.
This mesmerizing classic creates a captivating snapshot of the past that resonates with the present, exploring the many faces of passion as Hal jolts the players out of their dormancy.
If you go
• What: Classics at Brucemore: “Picnic”
• Where: Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater at Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: 7:30 p.m. today and July 19 to 21
• 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
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