Saturday, March 24, 2012

Oak Lawn Has a "Picnic" in State Drama Competition

It's no small feat to pack a whole set (including props and scenery) into a small truck and tote it down to Springfield, unload it, stack it, leave it, pull all your stuff out of the pile when summoned, put it together (carrying, building, latching, securing) in approximately ten minutes within the confines allowed to you, get your light cues and curtains set, put on your play, and then tear it all down and stick it on your truck, again within about ten minutes. Whew.

I was absolutely amazed, given those circumstances, at the wonderful sets I saw on display at the Illinois High School Association Drama competition at U of I Springfield this weekend. When the dust had cleared, the panel of five judges had picked their favorites (which, I have to admit, do not accord exactly with my own choices) and ranked them all and sent them all on their way. And I'm still sitting here thinking, wow, those sets...

The scenic designs are most probably the work of the teacher/coach/directors, not the students, but it's quite impressive that even one person, let alone twelve, can come up with a design that works to create the right atmosphere for a specific piece of theater, and one that can be taken apart and put back together and then taken apart again, in such a small amount of time. I was especially struck by the tiled, off-balance disc surrounded by light towers that director J.R. Rose chose as a platform for "The Dream of the Burning Boy" performed by Homewood-Flossmoor; the chilly and wide hospital set that director Sara Keith used for Lake Park's "Wit;" and the in-and-out Irish location directors Tom Witting and Erika Banick offered for "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" as performed by Reavis High School.

Based on overall dramatic presentation, my own choice for #1 would probably have been Homewood-Flossmoor's "Burning Boy." It felt the most real and like the most complete theatrical experience to me, with technical excellence as well as heartfelt, moving performances. "Burning Boy," by David West Read, is a new play, surfacing in New York in 2011, and it calls for several savvy high school students and a few teachers, as well. For me, Paul Spaniak stood out as pricky, complicated Larry, the teacher we see the most of, although Christopher Kelly's perky Steve, who thinks all you need after the death of a student is to put up cheery posters, was also right on the money. Asmera Smith was just difficult enough as Rachel, the sister of the boy who died, with Kirsten Hedrick providing tart energy as her mother, C.J. Butler sweet and affecting as the boy who's gone, and Charlie Bialobok and Jade Groble rounding out the tableau as other high schoolers.

Among the actors in other shows, Ryan Wagner and Michael Ernst stood out as George and Lennie in Glenbrook North's "Of Mice and Men," while Samantha Kittleson carried almost all of Lake Park's "Wit" on her slender shoulders, and Valerie Pizzato and Daniel Leahy provided welcome comic relief in Fremd's "Hail Mary!"

Oak Lawn's "Picnic," the one that took the top prize from the judges' panel, was certainly pretty to look at. Its lighting design, suffusing the stage with sunset hues, was striking and lovely. I don't know which of its three directors was in charge of the staging (or maybe it was a collaboration) but whichever it was did a very nice job, creating excellent stage pictures, especially at the very beginning, when Madge and Hal first catch sight of each other and sort of bend each other's way. That one move established the theme for this "Picnic," not so much about a girl suffocating in a small town, but more about summer heat and a passion that cannot be denied. For me, the cutting of the play didn't really work all that well, overemphasizing the second couple (desperate Rosemary and her beau, Howard) and leaving Madge and Hal too little room to build. It certainly was pretty, though. As a side note, I will be seeing ISU's college version of "Picnic" soon, and I'm betting it will be instructive to compare the two in terms of where the focus of the play lands.

This is the official finish:

First place: Oak Lawn Community's "Picnic," by William Inge, directed by Billy Denton, Theresa Wantiez and Marcus Wargin.
Second place: Homewood-Flossmoor's "The Dream of the Burning Boy," by David West Reid, directed by J.R. Rose.
Third Place: Glenbrook North's "Of Mice and Men," by John Steinbeck, directed by Julie Ann Robinson and Joel Monaghan.
Fourth Place: Reavis's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," by Martin McDonagh, directed by Tom Witting and Erika Bannick.
Fifth Place: Benton's "Feeding the Moonfish," by Barbara Wiechmann, directed by Alan Kimball.

For the complete list of finalists and how the judges ranked them, click here. If you scroll down, you can also see the actors chosen for All-State honors.

If you're interested in purchasing pictures of any of these shows, you should definitely visit the VIP Photography site.


  1. I saw most of the shows at the IHSA state competition and loved Picnic. In my opinion that was the clear winner. The performances were outstanding and the cutting gave a fresh perspective to an old play.
    In my opinion The Dream of the Burning Boy had an uneven cutting that resulted in an overall performance that did not quite jell with the set. This play seemed disjointed with uneven performances(although Paul Spaniak was outstanding)
    The actress in Wit was fantastic. I felt that production was far more succussful than The Beauty Queen. Beauty Queen had a fine set although this was the one production that truly seemed to miss the authors intent. That bieng said though - it was still impressive that all the directors attempted difficult material that challenged the young actors. Kudos to all involved - the productions were truly a fantastic example of strong educational theater.

  2. I waited till seeing ISU's "Picnic" to judge whether I still thought that Oak Lawn's cutting changed the main thrust of the play, and, yes, I still think that. It is not, to me, a play about love at first sight or the undeniable heat of sexual passion messing up people's lives. (For that theme, try Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia.") Instead, for me, "Picnic" is about small town restrictions and oppression and how everyone is trying to abide by rules that aren't working for them. So we have Madge, a pretty girl, chafing at the life set out for her (dress right, look right, act right, marry the respectable guy, go to the country club), instead choosing to go for something more daring, less safe, very much against the rules, which is represented by Hal, who is not that bright (like her), good-looking (like her) and has a strong case of wanderlust (like her). I also think Inge had a strong message about the way women's roles were restricted and somewhat destructive, with all the talk from Madge's mother about how she needs to get married now, before she hits (heaven forfend) 20, poor Mrs. Potts stuck taking care of her awful mother, Madge's and Milly's mother reflecting her own unhappiness at how her life and marriage turned out, and the crucial plotline about Rosemary, who pretends to want to be independent when what she really (desperately) wants is a man and a ring. It's that desperation and lack of satisfaction in her own role as an "old maid schoolteacher" that makes her attack Hal so viciously, just because he wounds her pride and exposes the sham of her "I don't want to get married" speeches. In my view, Oak Lawn's production misinterpreted those major thrusts of the play, plus the characters of Rosemary, Madge, Hal, and Howard, and Alan was missing entirely, when he is a key to both Madge's and Hal's personalities. It's difficult to do that kind of play in 45 minutes, and I understand that the abbreviated length created a challenge for Oak Lawn's director and actors. But still... It's something like what happened in Lake Park's "Wit," where they cut to one of the play's themes (how our medical care is dehumanizing) while minimizing the other (Vivian realizes how much she's missed on a personal level by focusing so much on the academic side of her life). In both cases, I think the play is more challenging and more adult than the shorter contest production really showed. Since one of the main criteria for IHSA drama is supposed to be, "Does the entire production effectively communicate the ideas, attitudes and emotions of the script to the audience?" I would say that neither "Picnic" nor "Wit" worked for me in that capacity, since they did not showcase what I consider to be the playwright's major theme. One other thing I noticed that didn't work for me was that the actors in "Picnic" seemed to be using Southern accents most of the time. The accents were not consistent, and also not appropriate for Kansas in the 1950s. So those were my concerns with the production and why it didn't seem as successful as others to me. Clearly, everyone judges these things differently, and it is not easy to get truly successful productions of full-length plays into 45 minutes, anyway. That's the double-edged sword of attempting "difficult material that challenged the young actors" and a perennial problem. Is is better to aim high and miss the mark, or to play it safe and hit the target? I think I fall on the side of hitting the target, although I realize others do not.