Don't hate the lead characters of William Inge's Picnic because they're beautiful — hate them because, despite loads of protestation, that's all they are.
The oft-repeated sigh in this 1953 play, onstage at Dallas' Theatre Three, is that looks are valued too highly and that others should not discount the waters that might be roiling beneath the placid lake.
But it's a cry that wears thin after a while, especially when the secondary characters begin to emerge as fully formed, interesting human beings. In this small Kansas town, folks are preparing for the Labor Day picnic while Mrs. Potts (Georgia Clinton) is tasking a drifter who's looking to work for his breakfast. The sculpted, shirtless young man (Haulston Mann) intrigues the girls who live across the yard and alarms their mother (Stephanie Dunnam), who sees shades of her ex-husband in the swaggering, slightly dangerous Hal.
Tomboy Millie Owens (a terrific Maya Pearson) is captivated by Hal while her older sister, Madge (Grace Montie), is magnetically drawn to him, much to the chagrin of her straight-laced boyfriend Alan Seymour (John Ruegsegger). Turns out Alan and Hal were fraternity brothers, and while Alan is willing to give his old pal as much help as he can, he's also aware of Hal's wild nature and free-wheeling ways.
While this triangle simmers, the other immediate residents are embroiled in their own dramas. Amber Devlin delivers one of the year's most vulnerable, funny, and heart-wrenching performances as the schoolteacher who rooms in the Owens house. At first her Rosemary is sassy and poised, a successful single woman who fills her time with girls' lunches and shopping. When her liquor-loving boyfriend Howard (a nuanced David Benn) drops by to escort her to the picnic, it sets off in Rosemary a desperation that culminates in a can't-tear-your-eyes-away monologue.
Rosemary's fellow schoolteachers, played by LisaAnne Haram and Cheryl Lowber, add further color to Rosemary's world. The set, designed by Michelle Harvey, makes one of the best uses of Theatre Three's often-awkward in-the-round stage, though Suzanne Lavender's lighting goes a little off the rails from time to time with winking spotlights and harsh washes.
From the sultry marketing that appears even on the doors to Theatre Three's lobby, it's clear that director Bruce Richard Coleman (who also designed the period costumes) wants us to become entranced by Hal's muscles and Madge's doe-eyed beauty. Without adequate support from playwright Inge, however, it's much more enjoyable to zero in on the younger sister, spinster schoolteacher, and kindly neighbors than the beefcake.
Picnic plays at Theatre Three through November 22