Playwright William Inge, the Independence, Kan. native who went on to win a Pulitzer and an Oscar, would have turned 100 this year. To honor that birthday, Kansas City Actors Theatre is staging Picnic, set in the 1950s in small town Kansas. The rehearsal process has revealed that it's a play much deeper and darker than the company originally believed.
At Union Station's H & R Block City Stage, the cast and crew of Picnic are gathering for a rehearsal on the first day the actors will see the actual set, one that includes a large porch looking upon a patch of green.
The time is now
In Kansas City Actors Theatre's nine seasons, it has never produced a William Inge play. Actor and KCAT board member Melinda McCrary plays Flo Owens, whose Kansas boarding house is the central hub of the play. She explains why Inge and why now.
"Why did we decide to do an Inge finally? There’s a terrific way to look at that question," McCrary says. "You know, our mission is to really explore modern classics, and Inge, and in particular Picnic, have been on the tip of our tongue since the very beginning.
"Inge is a brilliant playwright with whom many of us had early experiences, so it’s a play we already love. Also, it’s a terrific play for women and that’s something we looked at when we were looking at which Inge to do. When we realized it’s the 100th anniversary of his birth, we thought now is the time."
A slice of Americana
Picnic takes place in a small Kansas town over a Labor Day weekend. Director Mark Robbins says his perceptions of the play have taken on new shadings and shadows since the company began digging into the script.
"I freely admit I came to Picnic thinking of it as perhaps a crowd pleaser and relatively inoffensive," Robbins says. "And something that might attract an audience because it is on its face a nostalgic slice of Americana. In working on it, that seems so far in my mind now from what this play actually is.
"Pain and human behavior knows no geographic bounds and ultimately no bounds of time or era either. If it’s true, it’s true, and there is an awful lot about this play that is true."
New kid in town
Phillip Shinn plays Hal, the hunky drifter whose arrival in town serves as a catalyst, excavating among the town's womenfolk deep-seated yet untapped emotions.
"He’s kind of a vagabond who has had some hard luck in his life, and it started with a childhood that was void of love from parents," Shinn says. "It was hard economically and he’s struggled with growing up and fitting in.
"The one friend he has, Allen, is kind of like his lifeline. And the reason I’m coming to this town is to try and get back on my feet and get a job and it just so happens that his girlfriend catches me eye and that’s the beginning of the end.
"He has kind of an inferiority complex. The fact (is) that he can light up a room and he has this great hope his life can turn out to be something. He has two big vices- those are liquor and women - and in this play they collide."
Playing one of those women affected by Hal's presence is Jennifer Mays, whose character, Rosemary, is an unmarried schoolteacher living at Flo Owens's boarding house. She finds that one of the play's most resonant themes is that of ownership.
"Several characters talk about owning part of their life, or owning someone else, and the idea that this woman doesn’t have anything to own," says Mays. "She’s a renter. She lives in a house with a woman and her two children and she doesn’t own this room. She’s waiting to use the bathroom, she’s waiting to use the kitchen – nothing is hers.
"And other characters talk about ownership in other ways. Hal talks about, ‘I gotta take what’s mine in this life.’ (Rosemary) has an identity she has created for herself and whether it’s true or not and how much of it is true or not is - that’s timeless, ageless."
Night draws near
One week after Picnic closes, Kansas City Actors Theatre opens its next production, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Melinda McCrary says she's been surprised by the parallels found in both works.
"The more we work on them and read them – and we read Long Day’s Journey several times – they have so much in common," McCrary says.
"What it means to be a part of a family in America, and there’s a very different sensibility in the Kansas family than there is in the New England family. They both talk about the evils of drinking. They both talk about dreams lost. Mothers are a big issue in both – mother- children relationships These are two great American playwrights looking at some of the most important concerns that we have."
In preparing for the play, the company discovered that Inge actually wrote two other versions of the story: Man in Boots, prior to Picnic, and Summer Brave, several years after. Yet it is Picnic that theater companies continue to revisit, including last season's production on Broadway.
Kansas City Actors Theatre presents Picnic, August 6-25, 2013, at H & R Block City Stage at Union Station, 816-235-6222.