Ellen Burstyn, left, Ben Rappaport and Maggie Grace star in "Picnic." (Joan Marcus, Associated…)
This story has been corrected. See note below.
NEW YORK — Sixty years ago next month, playwright William Inge's "Picnic" opened on Broadway, establishing the Kansas-born playwright as one of the theater's brightest lights, considered the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.
The play, in which a sexy young drifter causes havoc in the lives of the women of a small Midwestern town, won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle award that year. Two years later, "Picnic" became a successful Oscar-winning film starring Kim Novak and William Holden.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Picnic": An article about the Broadway revival of "Picnic" in the Jan. 12 Calendar section referred to the Annie Baker play "Circle Mirror Transformation" as "Mirror Circle Transformation." In addition, the article referred to a character in "Picnic," the boyfriend of Rosemary Sydney, as Ralph. The character's name is Howard.
Inge felt he had to do something about all that success, so he rewrote the play.
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"Inge was very unhappy with the original production," says director Sam Gold of the 1953 production. "He was trying to write about the kind of failures and minor tragedies of these women, and Josh Logan [the director] argued for a more romantic and hopeful plotline. And I think that because Inge never got to have the production he wanted, that may have affected its place in history."
No one compares Inge to Williams or Miller now, and Gold is trying to do something about that. In a new Roundabout Theatre revival of "Picnic," which opens Sunday on Broadway, the 34-year-old director is honoring the darker intentions that spurred Inge to rewrite the play. (Called "Summer Brave," it eventually was produced on Broadway in 1975 and promptly flopped.) In the process, he could rescue "Picnic" and the playwright from the shadows.
"There is nothing more exciting than discovering a new voice," says Todd Haimes, the Roundabout's artistic director. "But next to that is to rediscover a work that has been relegated to the second-rate bin."
The way to do that, he added, is with a director who has a passion for the piece. "They do their best work when it's something that they've been dying to do and have been thinking about for years," he said. "That's really the genesis of this. Sam came to us."
Gold, who has directed acclaimed productions of Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" and Theresa Rebeck's "Seminar," came across Inge's oeuvre while doing research for his controversial Roundabout revival of John Osborne's 1956 classic, "Look Back in Anger," last year.
What he discovered was that after four consecutive Broadway hits, including "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Picnic," Bus Stop" and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" — all of which were made into popular films — Inge's career went into a tailspin. It was slowed only briefly when he won an Oscar in 1962 for the screenplay of "Splendor in the Grass," directed by Elia Kazan and starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.
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Despondent, given to serious bouts of depression and alcoholism and unable to cope with his homosexuality, the playwright committed suicide in 1973 at age 60.
"I didn't know much about him but I became very excited by the work and fascinated by his life," Gold says. "I couldn't believe how great and beautiful these plays were and how few chances New York audiences had to see them. They had so much more richness and depth than I had expected and I loved the idea of mining the details of this 'small story' with these incredibly complex and very human characters."
As in the plays of Horton Foote and Anton Chekhov, very little happens in "Picnic." It is centered on two adjoining households. One is the home of Flo Owens, an abandoned wife with two daughters, the tomboy Millie and her beautiful teenage sister, Madge. Their next-door neighbor is Helen Potts, a spinster saddled with an ailing and querulous mother.
Their sexually repressed worlds are upended when Mrs. Potts hires Hal Carter to do some chores around the house. His muscular body, seen bare-chested, sends out erotic waves that swamp not only Madge — who is intended for the town's rich kid — but also Rosemary Sydney, a middle-age boarder of Mrs. Owens'. The pheromones pinging around the back porches incite schoolteacher Rosemary into a desperate scene with her longtime boyfriend, a whiskey-nipping businessman set in his ways.
That scene, in which Rosemary, played by Elizabeth Marvel, begs boyfriend Howard (Reed Birney) to marry her, crumpling down on her knees in abject humiliation, is the lodestar of this production.