The time is 1953, the place rural Kansas. In the plain, spare world so beautifully imagined by set designer Joe Ragey (with lighting by Kurt Landisman), the landscape of smoothly rolling cornfields is laid out in squares, like a quilt. A pair of screen doors open directly into these hills, as though into prairie sod houses. The adjoining back yards of Helen Potts (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) and the Owens family are indicated by pastel-painted lawn furniture. This is a woman's world devoid of men, except for intrusive mischief-makers like Bomber (Sean Fox), the newspaper delivery boy. Or like Hal Carter (Joshua Farrell), who appears with Helen Potts at curtain's rise.
It's early Labor Day morning, and Helen has given Hal breakfast, in return for which he will clean up her yard. A good-looking young man with what is supposed to be a set of exceptionally muscular shoulders, he strips off his jacket and sets to work. While Farrell's Hal is certainly handsome enough, we who are accustomed to the physiques of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are likely to find Helen's reaction mystifying. As played by Cone, she gapes at Hal hungrily, earning a laugh from the audience and reminding us of the play's age.
Watching Picnic unfold (to the gentle piano accompaniment of composer and sound designer Don Seaver) is like opening a time capsule on a period when women were completely defined and limited by their relationships with men. The purpose of life was to get a husband, but if a woman managed to prevail in that endeavor (after a carefully plotted campaign), she still had to deal with sex, which was frightening, threatening, and forbidden. Marriage was expected to be dull and sexually unsatisfying, but the alternative -- old maidishness of one variety or another -- was unthinkable. Should a woman fall short of matrimony (or like Helen Potts have her matrimonial plans thwarted), she would more than likely find herself caring for an elderly parent (in this case, a tyrannical mother), or teaching school and suffering a social life of bridge games with other unmarried schoolteachers.
As interpreted by director Scheie, Picnic's world is a feminist's nightmare, an emotional backwater where women are passive -- their only recourse being to exercise so-called feminine wiles -- and where men are exotic sex objects, to be feared and admired.
The younger generation is represented by the Owens sisters, Madge (Susannah Schulman) and Millie (Carmen Elena Sosa). Schulman's Madge is the quintessential pretty girl, groomed and ready to take her place as a wife. Blond, gorgeous, and reassuringly vapid -- she has barely managed to graduate from high school and works as a clerk in a dime store -- she's being urged by her mother to use tonight's picnic to capture her prize, the rich but unexciting Alan Seymour (Liam Vincent).
By contrast her younger sister, Millie (given an overwrought performance by Sosa), is a tomboy who sneaks smokes and fights with neighborhood boys. Worse, Millie is an avid reader of such "immoral" books as Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. She plans to leave Kansas as soon as possible and head for fame and fortune in big, bad New York.
Flo (Molly Mayock) is Madge and Millie's mother, an embittered young widow who can't bring herself to say that she loved her husband. Flo is Madge's coach, her tactical adviser on how to snare Alan. "A pretty girl doesn't have long," she tells her daughter, "just a few years." Should she lose this tiny window of opportunity, her good looks will have been wasted. It is Flo, in a ruefully pragmatic performance by Mayock, who recognizes in Hal a threat to her plans for Madge.
Mayock's Flo is a marvel of restraint and sincerity. She grounds the frenetic and overdone opening scenes until the play can take hold, and manages such thankless lines as, "What will the neighbors say?" without apology or self-consciousness.
Rounding out this universe of women is the Owens' boarder, schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney (splendidly rendered by Susan Marie Brecht), a woman who has sowed various wild oats and who pretends to be content with the single life. Her regular escort is Howard Bevans (the superb Lawrence Hecht), a store owner from the next town. Should anyone refer to Howard as her boyfriend, she is quick to wrinkle her nose distastefully and joke that Howard's really just a friend who happens to be male -- as if there were any such thing in '50s Kansas.
It's Hal who upsets the proverbial apple cart, accepting the admiration of the women and exploiting his friendship with Alan, an old fraternity brother. But (probably because of the unavoidable comparison to William Holden in the movie version) Farrell's Hal seems naive, and surprisingly unaware of the effect he has on women, though he certainly likes being admired. Like Madge, his soul mate and counterpart, he gives the impression of someone who is baffled by his own good looks. Far from being the smoldering disrupter of small-town contentment, he's little more than an affably transparent braggart.
The effect he has on virtually everyone except Madge (who's the only character actually hoping for a surprise from life) is therefore a bit puzzling. Helen gapes whenever she lays eyes on him. Flo sees him as an immediate threat. Millie forsakes her bluejeans for him and puts on a dress. And in a stunning performance by Brecht, Rosemary gets drunk, makes a pass at Hal, and finally gives in to sex with Howard when Hal rebuffs her.
Which brings us back to Inge's play and the fascinating glimpse into '50s America it provides. The villain here isn't Hal, or Howard, or Alan, or any other man. The villain is the sexual code which limited women to the thankless roles of whore or virgin and insisted on marriage. In the end, Scheie's production raises the issues vividly, unmistakably, and unforgettably, and dispatches the notion of pleasant nostalgia with brilliant success.
Picnic runs through June 2 at the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley; call 388-5208.