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Ants in Their Pants

In William Inge's Picnic, everybody is itching for something.

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The short list: missing fathers, overprotective mothers, warring siblings, wholesome-looking hussies, and morally ambiguous men who are fugitives because they just can't stop running away from the ghosts of their own imagination.

These are the principle images inhabiting the landscape of rural American drama. From Eugene O'Neill to August Wilson, these have been the stock players. Tennessee Williams puts them together for Orpheus Descending, a play about a drifting musician in a snakeskin jacket who pops in on a town not partial to folks who are different. Sam Shepard has used every imaginable permutation of the formula, most notably in his epic family drama A Lie of the Mind, where the lead character runs off drunk in the night wrapped only in an American flag, looking for the love he killed and the wife he battered. But nobody has used these classic tropes of small-town tragedy more effectively than William Inge in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Picnic. Inge's characters seldom confront one another head-on. It's a passive aggression boiling over into the real thing that fuels Picnic, a quaint old-fashioned play in three acts that seems like it was written with contemporary audiences in mind.

Set between two all-female, lower-middle-class homes in the 1950s, Picnic may be all-American, but it also has all the makings of a Jane Austen redux. Two fatherless sisters -- Madge Owens, a simple beauty, and Millie Owens, a sassy tomboy with more brains than a proper lady should have -- live with their mother and an old-maid schoolteacher who rents the extra room. Mrs. Potts, the elderly neighbor who, apart from a single fling, has spent her entire life celibate caring for her invalid mother, has become part of the Owens household. Hopes are high all around that Madge will marry into the country-club set and that college will open doors for poor Millie. And things go pretty much according to the script until a strapping young stranger, Hal Carter, starts doing odd jobs for Mrs. Potts and turning every female head in the neighborhood.

With Inge, truth is often the victim of expectations. Hal (convincingly played by a chiseled Michael Ingersoll) is cast by preconceptions as a no-account rascal, and over time he becomes every bit the monster he's thought to be. Well, at least in the minds and ultimately in the lies told by the women who crave him but despise their craving.

Hal begins the play with the sincere desire, but only a ghost of a chance, of gaining respectability. He grew up like a weed, abused by an alcoholic father, who died in jail after the last time the cops scraped him off the street. The hustle is the only life Hal ever knew until his athletic abilities took him to college. He's got white-collar fantasies with no-collar skills. His handsome face and overt sexuality are his worst enemies, and women ogle him like horny construction workers, instantly converting their lust to negative fantasies and ill will. Picnic is, if nothing else, a play about tragic inevitability. Children must forever repeat their parents' mistakes; scapegoats and monsters must be created in order to distract us from our own pains and perversions. From the moment we meet Madge the angel, we know she will fall, and from the moment we meet Hal, we know he was born to die running.

Under the direction of Michael Detroit, Playhouse on the Square's Picnic is fine, if a little antiseptic. The ground-kicking, "aw shucks" dialogue, which dates the play, is given an over-the-top treatment that comes on like too much of mom's apple pie. As Millie, the tomboyish sister, the typically wonderful Angela Groeschen trips along like the sassy soubrette in some 19th-century operetta. You expect her to burst into song at any moment. While it is a beguiling performance, there are times when it seems to belong to some other play entirely. Jo Lynn Palmer is spot-on as Mrs. Potts, a woman who's found some peace in a life lived vicariously. Irene Crist makes a virtue of understatement as Flo Owens, a concerned single mother. As the perfect life she's planned for her perfect daughter goes to hell, she falls to pieces while keeping the better part of her dignity intact.

Inge's name may not carry the same weight as other middle and late 20th-century writers who dealt with this same kind of subject matter. But Picnic holds up surprisingly well and is especially appropriate at a time when our culture, with all its xenophobic hang-ups, is desperately trying to reclaim the virtues of some idyllic past that never existed in the first place.

Through June 6th

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