Q: What happened to Principal Snyder and The Mayor after the destruction of Sunnydale?
A:  They moved to the San Fernando Valley to help run a theatre company.

Now, while that sounds like the start of a really bad joke, it is anything but that.  Talented Whedon Alums Armin Shimerman and Harry Groener are on the board of Directors of the Antaeus Theatre Ensemble, currently based in North Hollywood and renowned for its presentation of classical theatre.

For their current production, Antaeus has chosen a moving revival of William Inge’s powerful Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, PICNIC.   Deceptively simple in its structure, Picnic tells the story of the events of Labor Day, 1952, in a small Kansas town where the currents of emotion run deep, and become unleashed by the presence of a handsome young drifter come to town.

Picnic_Stuffed-Peppers_10Tomboy Millie Owens (a stellar Connor Kelly-Eiding) eagerly wants to be a writer in the big city, while her sister, town darling Madge (Jordan Monaghan) chafes under the uncomfortable mantle of her own beauty.  Watching over them, while running her small boarding house, their mother Flo (Eve Gordon) frets and fusses over Madge, grooming her for a possible marriage to her boyfriend, wealthy Alan Seymour (Ross Philips), while giving up control of the rambunctious Millie.

Director Cameron Watson wields his cast deftly and wisely, setting the tone with the very introduction of the drifter Hal, making the audience complicit in what is about to follow.  Like the sun, Hal (Daniel Bess) draws everyone into his orbit, and cannily representing something different to everyone he meets.  To neighbor Helen, he’s a pleasant distraction from tending her housebound mother.  To eager Millie, he’s a trigger for her own nascent sexuality and a beckoning tease of the wide world outside, but to sister Madge, a tarnished mirror and perhaps the only one who can truly see her.  For Flo, he’s a reminder of the wrong road taken, while to schoolmarm Rosemary, he’s a ghost of the one not taken at all.  And his rambunctious enthusiasm and desperate need to prove himself heightens everything until his presence grows too intense and overwhelming, using his raw sexuality to charm, then seduce, and then pull off the enviable task of showing his true fear and vulnerability.

Picnic_Stuffed-Peppers_6Perfect casting from the leads to the smallest roles give the production an easy richness sometimes lacking in black-box theatres.  But that’s not lacking here.  Gigi Bermingham gives a force-of-nature performance as Rosemary Sydney, a spinster schoolteacher, hiding her desperate need for love and fear of loneliness under a worldly-wise exterior, while Kitty Swink shines as Helen Potts, the next door neighbor whose casual invitation to Hal ends up up-ending all of their carefully guarded worlds in less than 24 hours.  Ross Philips, as Madge’s by-the-book boyfriend, Alan Seymour, walks the fine line between young high society and awkward schoolboy when confronted again with the obviously beneath him Hal’s uncouth charisma and it’s impact on those in his orbit.  It’s Alan that comes closest to asking the questions that all the women around him already seem to know the indelicate answers to.

While Inge’s classic could come off as dated, Watson’s careful crafting of his actors performances gives the production a feeling of timeliness and timelessness.  It’s a world of desperately lonely people, longing for a future outside of their control, or mourning a past that lead them to the lives they lead now, where image and impact go hand-in-hand, and hasty decisions can lead to unexpected and unknown circumstances.  Watson lets his actors explore the facets of want and need within each.  As Millie and Madge, Kelly-Eiding and Monaghan, plumb the depths of their sisterly relationship, their feelings whiplashing back and forth from sisterly affection to outright jealousy and anger with spot-on accuracy and realism.

Picnic_Stuffed-Peppers_8While casual in it’s set-up, the production quickly gains steam, and culminates in a first act moment that left our audience silent and breathless, as if the entire world had stopped to watch a simple dance.  At that moment, Monaghan and Bess imbue their Madge and Hall with a sensuality so vibrant and electric, you can almost see their world changing around them.

But even before that, we’re drawn in, as we enter Scenic Designer Robert Selender’s middle-America, mid-century backyard, overflowing the stage, blurring the lines between audience and performance in a smooth and easy congress, aided by Jeff Gardner’s sound design, which serves to open the space even more than the four walls should allow.

Picnic won the Pulitzer for Drama when it premiered in 1953, and in this production, it’s easy to see why it still endures.  And in this production, Antaeus has taken a classic and made it extremely accessible for modern audiences while still staying true to the heart of the piece.  You can’t go wrong in giving this production a shot.

Note:    Picnic runs with partner casts (Deviled Eggs/Stuffed Peppers), alternating performances, running nightly Thursday-Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with a blended cast (Pork Chops) in noted performances.  [This review covers the Stuffed Peppers cast.]

VERDICT:     ***** 5 Stars/Recommend

The Antaeus Theatre is located at 5112 Lankershim Blvd, in North Hollywood, CA 91601.  Picnic runs from June 25 through August 16th on Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sunday at 2PM (dark July 4).  The theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible, with lot and street parking available.  For reservations and other information, call 818-506-1983 or go to www.antaeus.org.

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