by Les Spindle

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday July 1, 2015

Jason Dechert, Rhonda Aldrich, Sarah Halford and Matthew Gallenstein
Jason Dechert, Rhonda Aldrich, Sarah Halford and Matthew Gallenstein  (Source:Geoffrey Wade)

In its shimmering revival of William Inge's steamy 1953 classic, "Picnic," the classics-focused Antaeus Theatre Company serves up a theatrical feast.

Inge's atmospheric drama offers an intoxicating glimpse at small-town America in a more innocent era, in which passion and longing seethe beneath the quaint surface of bucolic life. The vintage play still imparts timelessly resonant truths about romantic yearning, human folly, familial bonds, and difficult life choices.

Set in a Kansas berg on Labor Day weekend, 1952, and vibrantly reflecting the era in which it was written, this durable drama (deserving winner of a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Circle Award), is perhaps most widely familiar for its 1955 film version, starring William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, and Arthur O'Connell.

A true ensemble piece, the play is a perfect vehicle for the veteran Antaeus company, which double-casts its productions. Two ensembles perform separately, and sometimes recombine in a mix-and-match fashion. At the reviewed Sunday matinee on opening weekend, an exemplary group of Antaeus performers brought the classic to vibrant life in a gorgeously designed production, under the finely nuanced direction of Cameron Watson.

Inge's works attained the peak of their popularity at the same time that Tennessee Williams' works flourished. Besides "Picnic," Inge's string of hits was highlighted by "Bus Stop," "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," "Come Back Little Sheba" and his Oscar-winning screenplay for the Natalie Wood-Warren Beatty hit "Splendor in the Grass."

Like Williams, Inge led a largely troubled life. Following a string of career disappointments, Inge committed suicide in 1973, at age 70. Moments of sharp poignancy and desperation are evident in "Picnic," yet the play is simultaneously graced with sweet romance and sly humor. The small-town community at its core imparts resonant reflections of some of the highs, lows and ultimate redemptive possibilities of life.

The scorching holiday weekend begins with the arrival of a charismatic and handsome drifter, Hal Carter (terrifically played by Jason Dechert in a multi-layered characterization), a former college football star. He is enlisted by lonely spinster, Helen Potts (the excellent Janellen Steininger).

The caretaker for her invalid mother, Helen agrees to have the alluring newcomer handle chores for her, in exchange for food and temporary lodging. The seductive Hal instantly causes a stir among the local women (the elders as well as those younger).

Hal greets his former college pal, Alan (the fine Matthew Gallenstein), who is boyfriend to teenage Madge Owens (superb Jordan Monaghan). Complications ensue with a steamy fast attraction between Hal and Madge, as her world-weary mother Flo (the excellent Rhonda Aldrich) is protective of the hopes and dreams of her younger daughter, Millie (spirited Jackie Preciado).

The quick bond between Hal and Madge soon brings tensions between Alan and Hal to a boil. Meanwhile, local schoolmarm Rosemary Sydney, a repressed spinster (brilliantly played by Shannon Holt) works hard to gain a marriage commitment from her elusive beau, Howard Bevans (finely played by Josh Clark). The subplots pick up momentum and eventually dovetail in climactic encounters that will greatly change the lives of the town full of wistful midsummer-night dreamers.

Among other exemplary players in Watson's ensemble at the reviewed performance were Jake Borelli, Dylan Jones and Jill Maglione.

In the compact Antaeus facility, Robert Selander's atmospheric set is a dreamlike wonder, working in perfect harmony with Jared A. Sayeg's sublime lighting design. Jeff Gardner's splendid sound effects add to the colorful milieu, as do Terri A Lewis' evocative period costumes.

The frosting on the cake at this delicious "Picnic" was the announcement that Antaeus is renovating a facility in the city of Glendale's stylish arts and entertainment district which will become the company's larger and more versatile new home, a complete new performing arts facility. It is scheduled to open approximately a year from now.

"Picnic" continues through August 30 at Antaeus Theatre Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For tickets and information, call 818-506-1983 or visit http://www.antaeus.org.