CHANGE IN THE WINGS A young man and his bare torso stir up a Kansas town in Picnic.
In a sleepy Kansas town, the strongest desires, fears, and grievances burn just below the surface, with only the occasional visible flicker. But come Labor Day, a catalyst arrives — Hal (Jordan Lorenz), an impulsive, hedonistic wanderer with a chiseled torso — and throws gasoline on everybody’s quiet smoldering, in William Inge’s 1953 Picnic. Ellen Claire Lamb directs a spirited and attractively appointed community theater production for Gaslight Theater, at the Hallowell Town Hall.
Lovely Madge (Anna Doyle) longs to be wanted for more than her doll-like beauty, while Madge’s younger sister Millie (Bailey Sechrist), sick of being the “smart one,” at once disdains and aches for the male attention her sister receives. Their mother Flo (Lucy Poland), abandoned by their wild-living father, is desperate to keep Madge from the same fate by securing her marriage to the well-off, dependable Alan (Jack Gobillot). In the face of this placid romance, the family’s boarder Rosemary (Jen Cart), a schoolteacher nearing middle age, is a little too loud in proclaiming her own romantic independence.
As Hal’s torso, bare for much of the first act, proves life-altering, the principles in the cast sensitively chart the shifts, sparks, and flares in the community’s established constellations. Sechrist and Doyle and establish a wonderfully prickly sisterhood early on, and Hal moves each toward womanhood in different ways: Sechrist’s alert Millie trains her attentions on the observable, conventional trappings of womanhood — nails, a dress, how to talk to a boy — while Doyle’s eyes get wide in the presence of something much less tangible and governable. She exercises a lovely, quiet new agency as she tentatively exercises a new agency in reaching for Hal. In turn, Gobillot’s Alan has some fine, subtle moments as he catches glimpses of Madge’s attraction to Hal, whom he knew in college as a boasting, out-classed screw-up. And Hal himself, in Lorenz’s hands, practically vibrates with the dissonance of his peacock’s arrogance and his insecurity.
Rosemary, the older woman whose desire he inadvertently awakens, has in Cart’s portrayal a sharp, fine-boned wit and vanity that cracks open dramatically to reveal, in turns, devastating need and wounded cruelty. She poses a strong contrast with her buffoonish, emotionally evasive boyfriend, Howard (Peter Carriveau), which makes for one fraught triangulation between the two of them and the intensely animal Hal, one between her, Howard, and Madge, and one between herself, Madge, and Hal.
The Gaslight production delineates these relationships with nuance and intelligence, on a simple and evocative set of modest clapboard exteriors and flowers (design by Chris Cart). Costuming, particularly Madge’s and Millie’s for the picnic dance — relatively flashy departures for both girls, but still fundamentally innocent — is excellent. Despite a few opening-weekend wrinkles with lines and entrances, Picnic is emotionally acute in drawing out the complexities of relationships within and between families and lovers in this small town.