Off-Broadway Review: “Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba: William Inge in Repertory”

Off-Broadway Review: “Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba: William Inge in Repertory”

David Roberts

OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

“Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba: William Inge in Repertory” at Transport Group Theatre Company at the Gym at Judson leaves one longing for more William Inge and more Transport Group – perhaps a trifecta that includes the 1955 “Bus Stop.” Inge’s themes of deep angst, “small ambition,” the search for identity and purpose, lost (or abandoned) youth, choices and consequences, human sexuality and sexual repression, addiction and enabling, loneliness, and change and transformation pervade these two engaging and relevant plays. 

Despite the post-war mid-western settings, the desperate starkness of Inge’s plays is particularly relevant and challenging in this post-election era in the United States – at a time when the nation is searching for its identity and purpose and experiencing the consequences of political choices on the national and global stages. Personal and corporate angst could not be more acute.

In the 1953 “Picnic,” both Madge (Ginna Le Vine) and her tomboy sister Millie (Hannah Elless) respond to the distant train whistle with the hope for change. Madge confesses, “Whenever I hear that train coming to town, I always get a little feeling of excitement—in [my stomach].” Millie responds, “Whenever I hear it, I tell myself I’m going to get on it some day and go to New York.” But their mother Flo (Michele Pawk) reminds them “That train just goes as far as Tulsa.” Despite their longing for change, neither has yet made the kinds of choices that move fantasy into reality. It is the visit of the drifter Hal (David T. Patterson) that is the catalyst for change in “Picnic.” His unbridled sexuality and moral ambiguity become the transformative agents for each of the characters in the play and challenge their sexual oppression and unrealized ambitions. Madge’s boyfriend Alan (Rowan Vickers) and Rosemary’s (Emily Skinner) hapless suitor Howard (John Cariani) counterpoint Hal’s free-spirited grifter-soul and encounter Inge’s strong and progressive women in endearing battles for exploring the deep meanings of love and its loss.

Unbridled sexuality and sexual oppression are also important themes in the 1950 “Come Back, Little Sheba.” And again, it is the interjection of a young uninhibited male Turk (David T. Patterson) that challenges the dysfunctional family system in the home of Doc (Jospeh Kolinski) and Lola (Heather Mac Rae) and their boarder Marie (Hannah Elless) and her wealthy boyfriend Bruce (Rowan Vickers). Living with an alcoholic – or any other substance abuser or addict – cannot be an easy task. The danger for the spouse or relative is to enable the addict. Doc is an addict, an alcoholic. He is not a recovering alcoholic, he is an alcoholic who is in a twelve-step program. His wife Lola is his enabler. Their “shared addiction” is only the tip of complex family system generated by their “need” to marry after unwanted pregnancy many years ago. Doc is mired in sexual repression: he is so repressed and wound tight that he admonishes Lola for saying, “I’m not a bit tired tonight. You’d think after working so hard all day I’d be pooped.” Doc replies, “Baby, don’t use that word. It sounds vulgar.” And when Lola invites Doc to watch Marie and Turk “spooning,” Doc admonishes Lola, “Stop it, Baby. I won’t do it. It’s not decent to snoop around spying on people like that. It’s cheap and mischievous and mean.” 

Meanwhile, Doc’s fetish with Marie’s scarf goes unbridled and eventually his repressed desire for her leads him to go off the wagon and block yet once again any opportunity for transformative change in their relationship. Throughout the play, Lola longs for the return of her “white and fluffy” little dog Sheba – her only source of true companionship and hopefulness. Like the train whistle in “Picnic,” Lola’s lost dog somehow articulates – but not completely heals – the emptiness, the gnawing in the soul of the characters in these important plays. In “Picnic,” Madge has to decide whether to follow Hal; in “Come Back, Little Sheba,” Lola has to decide when to stop waiting for Sheba’s return.

Stephen Mir, Krystal Rowley, Jay Russell, and David Greenspan round out the ensemble cast. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting design, Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costume design, Miles Polaski’s sound design, and Michael John LaChiusa’s original music all complement the playwright’s exploration of the vicissitudes of the human condition inherent in the two plays.

Under Jack Cummings III’s direction, the members of the ensemble cast uniformly deliver authentic and believable performances in both plays. The director approaches each play differently. His direction in “Picnic” results in a face-paced and smooth performance whereas he chooses to direct “Come Back, Little Sheba” broadly. There is no subtlety there and that detracts from the power of Inge’s script. For example, Emily Skinner’s Rosemary reveals her loneliness layer after layer allowing the audience to connect with her angst gradually whereas Heather Mac Rae’s Lola wears her depression and repressed anger “on her sleeve” leaving little to the imagination. These seem to be choices of the director, not the actor. In both plays, Dane Laffrey’s set designs allow the audience to “snoop” on the actors without guilt or shame and share in Mrs. Coffman’s realization, “I guess it just shows, we never really know what people are like.”

“Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba: William Inge in Repertory” at Transport Group Theatre Company at the Gym at Judson both raise rich and enduring questions about the human quest for purpose and identity in a time when individuality and freedom seem to be placed in harm’s way. 

PICNIC AND COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA: WILLIAM INGE IN REPERTORY

The cast of “Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba: William Inge in Repertory” features John Cariani; Hannah Elless; David Greenspan; Joseph Kolinski; Ginna Le Vine; Heather Mac Rae; David T. Patterson; Michele Pawk; Jennifer Piech; Krystal Rowley; Jay Russell; Emily Skinner; and Rowan Vickers. The two plays will be performed in rotating repertory; six actors of the fourteen-member ensemble will perform in both plays.

Scenic design for “Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba: William Inge in Repertory” is by Dane Laffrey; costume design is by Asta Hostetter; lighting design is by R. Lee Kennedy; casting is by Nora Brennan Casting.  The production features an original score by five-time Tony nominee Michael John LaChiusa. Production photos by Carol Rosegg.

“Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba: William Inge in Repertory” will run Thursday, February 23–Sunday, April 16, at the Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street.  The regular performance schedule is Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.  Tickets are now on sale starting at $59.00, with VIP tickets available for $69.00.  A two-play subscription is available for $99.00.  For tickets and information, including performance schedule and added performances and special curtain times, visit http://www.transportgroup.org or phone 212 564 0333. Running time for each play is two hours and twenty minutes with intermissions. Photo: Ginna Le Vine and David T. Patterson in "Picnic." Credit: Carol Rosegg.

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