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Ants, Pants, etc.

Beefcake's on the menu at Theatre Memphis.

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Whether they happen on a church lawn, the courthouse steps, or down by the riverside, community picnics and potlucks are wholesome summer rituals destined to end in hanky-panky. Politics and polite conversation are all made palatable with enough fried chicken, green bean casserole, and whatever you may have snuck into your Coke when nobody was looking. Music plays, paper lanterns glow, and young couples walk out in the fresh air. How nice.

William Inge's 1953 drama Picnic is Americana distilled, playing with the innocent and not-so-innocent nature of these titular events that tend to happen when the weather heats up and the layers are peeled off. What begins like a sequel to Our Town ends up like a possible prequel to Bonnie and Clyde. That Picnic constantly teeters between screwball comedy and suspenseful noir is a testament to the power of simple, unfussy language. That shines through even in Theatre Memphis' competent but not entirely satisfying revival of what should be regarded as an American classic.

Life isn't easy for Flo Owens, played here by Ann Sharp, but she's making the most of what she has. She may have fallen in love with a hard-drinking free spirit who abandoned her and her two daughters, but she's made a good life for Millie (Jamie Boller), the brainy, blossoming teenager who dreams of someday living in New York and scandalizing the world with a shocking modern novel, and Madge (Melissa Walker Moore), the local beauty who's not terribly ambitious or half as naive as she seems. Flo has taken on a border: Rosemary (Christina Wellford Scott), an "old maid school teacher" who's in a tentative relationship with Howard (Barclay Roberts), a practical businessman with a taste for the occasional whiskey. The Owens' neighbor, Helen (Bonnie Kourvelas), is unmarried and chained to her house by obligations to an elderly parent so mean the nursing homes won't take her. All of these characters' lives are heated up in unexpected ways when Hal (John Moore), a handsome, ne'er-do-well braggart, shows up and starts showing off for the ladies.

A curious thing about Theatre Memphis' Picnic: It often looks and feels like a musical. When Moore's Hal swings on a porch column while flirting, it wouldn't be at all surprising if he broke out into a verse of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning."

Hal should be a good role for Moore, a reliable actor so chiseled he could probably sell tickets to a show called John Moore Takes His Shirt Off. The guy is so good looking he could make Inge's sketchy braggart even more obnoxious than he's written and still nobody would ever question why Madge goes for him. But Moore is treated like beefcake in this production, and his performance is bent in a genuinely sweet direction, all puppy-dog eyes and warm, flashing smiles. The onstage heat he shares with Melissa Walker Moore, his real-life wife, is palpable, but too much danger has been removed from the equation.

Steven Burk is effective as Alan, a nice, level-headed boy from a good family who can never hope to compete with Hal for Madge's affections, but this Picnic's best moments belong to Scott and Roberts, as Rosemary and Howard drunkenly confront their relationship with the status quo and with each other. The give-and-take between these two performers has an organic quality that's missing from other scenes.

Inge's script — a spiritual twin of Tennessee Williams' more overtly poetic Orpheus Descending — is built like a jazz score. With the plainest language, he turns the rhythms of small-town life — the babbling gossip, unexpected explosions, bicycle bells, and sirens — into something very much like music.

Through May 15th

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