PICNIC by William Inge, directed by Jackie Maxwell, with Fiona Byrne, Mike Wasko, Wendy Thatcher, Goldie Semple, Jim Mezon and Mike Shara. Presented by the Shaw Festival at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to September 21. $25-$75. 1-800-511-7429. Rating: NNN
the insistent tugs of romance and sexual desire snake their way through William Inge's Picnic as hypnotically as does Paul Sportelli's moody sax-based score for the Shaw Festival production, helmed by the company's artistic director-designate, Jackie Maxwell. And if at its centre the show has problems, it provides some splendid characters and storytelling.Set in a small Kansas town, the work focuses on the Owens household -- protective mother Flo (Wendy Thatcher), resident beauty Madge (Fiona Byrne), her tomboy sister Millie (Lisa Norton) and their boarder Rosemary (Goldie Semple), a self-described old-maid schoolteacher.
Their world -- and that of several other townspeople -- is ignited by the arrival of sensual drifter Hal Carter (Mike Wasko), a man with a past and a history of seduction.
The company does some first-rate work, notably Thatcher as the sharp-tongued Flo, Mike Shara as Madge's shy, college-bound boyfriend and Jim Mezon as the good-humoured salesman Rosemary hopes to hook. Jane Johanson contributes a dead-on comic cameo as a nervous new teacher. Blending sadness and comedy, hope and need, Semple's thwarted Rosemary is the production's most complex characterization.
The piece is less focused at its core, the growing relationship between Hal and Madge. Inge's script gives Hal a wispy history, and Wasko, though he communicates the part's sensuality, doesn't fill out the subtext. Byrne is skilled, but in her hands Madge's sexual and spiritual awakening is too calculated.
Still, it's worth sitting down to this Picnic, which stays -- as it should -- on the bittersweet side of tragedy.