A look back at Picnic on Broadway

Posted on: January 9th, 2013 by Roundabout

Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2013 production of Picnic marks the third incarnation of Inge’s play on Broadway. This new staging, insightfully directed by Sam Gold, is performed by a talented ensemble that includes Academy Award® winner Ellen Burstyn, theatre veterans Reed Birney (The Dream of the Burning Boy) and Elizabeth Marvel (Other Desert Cities), rising stars Maggie Grace (“Lost”) and Sebastian Stan (“Gossip Girl”), Emmy® Award winner Mare Winningham (recently seen in Tribes), Madeleine Martin (August: Osage County) and Ben Rappaport (Hope Springs).

Ellen Burstyn, Sebastian Stan and Maggie Grace in Picnic, 2013.
Photo by Joan Marcus

First produced in the Music Box Theatre on Broadway in 1953, Picnic’s development was a highly collaborative one. Director Joshua Logan played a large role in helping Inge shape the piece. A product of two plays initially (one about a group of small-town women, and one about a drifter who shakes things up), which Logan insisted be combined, Inge was left unsatisfied with the finished product. He went on to write Summer Brave, a revised version of Picnic that ended on a far bleaker note. Summer Brave was not revealed to the public until after Inge’s death in 1973.

Janice Rule and Ralph Meeker in the 1953 production of Picnic.

The original Broadway production of Picnic was incredibly well-received, running for 477 performances and winning Logan a Tony Award. Not only was the script recognized by the New York Drama Critics' Circle with an award for Best American Play, it won Inge the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also helped to launch the career of a very young unknown—Paul Newman.

Initially desirous of the Hal role, Newman was cast as newspaper boy Bomber—a part with comparatively less stage time. However, after seeing Newman in rehearsal, Logan decided to recast him as Alan, Madge’s sweet-but-not-spark-inducing, well-to-do boyfriend. Though he was allowed to understudy the role of Hal, Logan didn’t believe Newman had the sex appeal to portray the shirtless drifter. Through this Broadway appearance, not only was Newman’s personal life affected (he met and eventually married actress Joanne Woodward, who was understudying for Madge) but his professional career was impacted greatly when he was offered his first film role. He left for Hollywood and, after several smoldering screen roles, proved Logan wrong.

During the 1950s, Inge found great success on the Great White Way not only with Picnic, but also with Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Throughout this period, Inge was able to hold his own against other American playwriting greats, such as his muse and mentor, Tennessee Williams. (It was witnessing The Glass Menagerie in 1944 that inspired William Inge to seriously pursue his own playwriting career.) However, his work soon fell out of favor. After this initial stint, every subsequent attempt to mount one of his new plays ended in poor reviews and brief runs. It appeared that Inge had been largely forgotten by audiences who once championed his work. Four decades passed before Picnic found its way back onto the Broadway stage.

Ashley Judd in Picnic in 1994.
Photo by Carol Rosegg/Martha Swope Associates

As part of its commitment to enduring classics, Roundabout revived Picnic for the first time in 1994. It ran for 26 previews and 45 performances at the Criterion Center Stage Right (originally the Olympia Theatre, currently the Bond 45 restaurant.) The production was helmed by director Scott Ellis and the cast included Debra Monk, Larry Bryggman, Anne Pitoniak, Tate Donovan and Kyle Chandler. It also marked the Broadway debut of Ashley Judd, who stepped into the role of Madge, the prettiest girl in town.

Having found success in Ruby in Paradise, and having just finished filming Natural Born Killers, Judd decided to make the move to Broadway. As she explained to reporter Chris Smith in an April ’94 New York Magazine interview, she felt that “…theatre is the true genesis of acting.”

Being the daughter and half-sister of two very prominent country stars (Naomi and Wynonna respectively), Judd’s acting career was an attempt to carve out her own identity—not unlike pretty Madge, who desperately wants to be more than the label others have given her. This parallel was not lost on Smith, who continued in his article to assert that, “…Judd will be a more aggressive Madge, one aware of her wiles and aching to find her own way in the world.” Along with a more self-assured Madge, the 1994 production saw other departures from the original.

Instead of setting Picnic in 1953, Ellis decided to move the piece back to the 1930s when liquor laws would have been in place and the atmosphere of Depression-stricken Kansas would have been more taxing on its inhabitants. Not only was the period changed, the decision was also made to run all three acts consecutively. Without an intermission, the piece--which was meant to steadily turn from sparks to flames--was able to maintain momentum.

Ashley Judd and Kyle Chandler in Picnic, 1994.
Photo by Carol Rosegg/Martha Swope Associates

Another two decades have passed and Roundabout has brought Picnic back for a new generation of theatregoers. In this new incarnation, Sam Gold hopes to strip the script of any rose-tinted nostalgia and focus on the stark realities of this small-town world. In a recent interview with Roundabout Dramaturg, Ted Sod, Gold explained that Picnic's characters "...dream of romance, falling in love, getting on a train and going far away. You also see the older generation of characters who had similar dreams that did not necessarily work out. You see what it's like to give up your dreams and face the reality in these Midwestern towns at that time. I think Inge is speaking to the fire that burns in the young and what happens to that fire when you grow up."

Just as a startling train whistle can pierce the evening air, Gold and his cast remind us that under the quiet, simple exterior of these Kansas townsfolk beat hearts that are aflame.

Picnic plays at the American Airlines Theatre through March 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, Picnic

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