It’s always special to see one or two clearly superior onstage talents at the top of their form. But it’s an even more rare and delicious treat to see an ensemble cast vastly exceed the sum of its parts.
Such is the case with the Armstrong Masquers’ masterful treatment of Picnic, William Inge’s 1953 look at middle America in a post-war transition of values. The run continues through this weekend, and whether you’re a casual theatregoer looking for weekend diversion or an aficionado with a critical eye, I encourage you to check it out.
Simply put, this is student theatre at its best. While any Armstrong student can audition for a Masquers production -- as well as community members who don’t attend the school at all -- this production of Picnic happens to be cast exclusively with AASU theatre majors.
I don’t know if that old college spirit is why these actors display an almost frightening work ethic to go along with their obvious delight in the show, but I surmise it has something to do with it.
Primarily, however, the credit for this success must go to director Pamela Sears, who in addition to staying on top of every detail and making sure the actors do the same, has done the best job of blocking (theatre jargon for stage movement) I’ve seen in quite some time.
Every second of Picnic takes place outdoors in a single patch of shared yard between a few humble homes in a small town in Kansas (the rake of the stage, approximating a rolling knoll of grass, is a great touch).
The usually humdrum and predictable local order of events spins almost out of control when a roguish drifter named Hal Carter inserts himself -- or is he inserted deliberately? -- into the town’s annual Labor Day picnic, coming between established couples and pecking orders in this midwestern hamlet.
This sameness of set could easily -- oh, Lord how easily -- turn into a boring quagmire of actors statically occupying the same spots. Or worse, moving just for movement’s sake.
Not so here. Every movement is measured but casual, every cross is deliberate but natural -- and most of all, in this age when projection is a lost art and mumbling is the norm, every actor says his or her lines with clarity, warmth and authority.
As great a job as Sears has done, that being said let’s not give the cast short shrift. While there are no stars per se, there are some delightful surprises here, and everyone deserves a measure of credit.
In no particular order, I was most impressed by Sage Tipton’s slapstick (and strangely attractive) portrayal of Millie Owens, dorky younger sister of town beauty queen Madge Owens (convincingly played by Michelle Drake).
As lovelorn schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney, Meagan Brower’s scene with Zack Blanchard to begin the third act is a gem. For most of the play Blanchard plays Rosemary’s beau Howard Bevans more like a quirky bit player from Seinfeld than a Kansas storekeeper, but during this scene both he and Brower are clearly reaching for a higher plane of drama, and indeed they attain it.
I will mention Hallie Mobley, not only for her perfect comedic timing as Irma Kronkite, but for the fact that she’s the daughter of Chuck Mobley, who first hired me straight out of the University of Georgia onto the copy desk at the Morning News. Hallie, I first met you when you were a tiny baby, and boy do I feel old right about now.
I will also mention the beguiling Mona Lisa smile of Emily Sheffield’s Helen Potts, mischievous elderly landlady and host of the aforementioned roguish drifter, Hal.
And what of this Hal Carter? As played here by Brandon Morris, for most of the first act I thought he was miscast. Initially, Morris seemed too coltish, too callow, too young to portray a badass ne’er-do-well who gambles at cards, chases skirts, steals motorcycles, holds his liquor and rides the rails from town to town.
But as Picnic progressed, Morris grew on me. I still maintain that he doesn’t bring enough menace to the part, but Morris wisely plays to his strengths, portraying Hal as not so much as a juvenile delinquent tough guy but more as a too-precocious high school quarterback gone astray.
I confess I’ve never seen the film version of Picnic, starring William Holden and Kim Novak as Hal and Madge. But it’s just as well. This Picnic is a satisfying enough meal in and of itself.
The Masquers continue Picnic this Oct. 5, 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m. at AASU’s Jenkins Theater. $8 general admission, $7 for seniors, military and students. Call 927-5381.
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