Friday, April 6, 2012

ISU's Intimate "Picnic" Unfolds in Centennial West

William Inge used the wide open spaces of Kansas to fuel a sort of claustrophobia in his "Picnic," the 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner about youth and passion, expectations and dreams, all stifled by life in a small town. In the Illinois State University production directed by Lori Adams for the tiny studio theater inside Centennial West 207, the wide open spaces (see poster above) and the claustrophobia (tiny studio theater inside CW 207) are both on display.

"Wide open" is represented by landscape paintings of wheat hung at the back of the stage and around the sides of the audience, while "closed in" is reflected both in the confined size of the playing space, with two back porches tucked inside it, and because scenic designer Eric J.J. Moslow has added a frame -- much like a large picture frame -- around what would be the proscenium if this were a full-size theater. The porches show how everybody is living in each other's pockets and getting into each other's business, while the frame hems everybody in, as well as offering a snapshot of Small Town America circa 1953, right out of a family album.

Thematically, the frame adds a nice touch. Practically, however, it blocks the view of the people sitting in line with it. I saw more than one craned neck as people tried to see who was doing what on the Owens family porch blocked by the frame.

The other limitation to the size of the Centennial West 207 space is that there is only room for one floor of the Owens home, even though the script refers to sister Madge, the pretty one, primping and getting ready in a window up on the second floor, where everybody can see her from down in the back yard. Instead of Madge up there in the window, you'll see the lights hung from the ceiling of CW 207.

Still, Inge's play's themes come across loud and clear in this production, as we see young people looking for passion or excitement or any kind of escape from the restrictions they face in this prairie town. Eliza Morris' Madge is every bit as pretty and restless as she needs to be, so that the entrance of bad boy Hal (Russell Krantz) turns her world upside-down. Morris gives Madge layers of vulnerability and self-awareness that make her a root-for character all the way through.

Krantz is boyish and brash as Hal, maybe a little too boyish to establish that Hal is a Man with a capital M. I'd also like to see a crack in Hal's bravado, showing he has been worn down by the mistakes he's made and the hard row he's been hoeing of late. Still, Krantz makes Hal energetic and athletic and fun to watch. He seems dangerous indeed, bouncing off the walls in this small space.

Betsy Diller is very good as Madge's little sis Millie, both a smarty pants and a tomboy in Diller's performance, and she creates good chemistry with Mitch Conti, striking the perfect note as Alan, Madge's country club boyfriend and Hal's old fraternity brother.

Devon Nimerfroh also stands out as Howard, a congenial salesman from a nearby town. Nimerfroh has the "Hail fellow well met" tone of that era and that kind of guy down just right.

"Picnic" has two more performances at CW 207tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30 pm.

By William Inge

Centennial West 207
Illinois State University School of Theatre

Director: Lori Adams
Scenic Designer: Eric J.J. Moslow
Costume, Hair and Makeup Designer: Emily Nichelson
Lighting Designer: Grace Maberg
Sound Designer and Composer: James Wagoner
Fight Director: Tony Pellegrino
Dance Choreographer: Shelby Brand
Stage Manager: Danielle Wiseman

Cast: Lauren Sheffrey, Russell Krantz, Betsy Diller, Antonio Zhiurinskas, Eliza Morris, Melanie Camire, Elizabeth Keach, Mitch Conti, Tammy Wilson, Brittany Temper and Devon Nimerfroh, with offstage voices provided by Tammy Wilson, Antonio Zhiurinskas, Levi Ellis and Mitch Sachdev.

Running time: 2:20, including two 10-minute intermissions.

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