‘Picnic’ casts new and familiar faces

By on September 12, 2018

 

 

The cast of “Picnic,” photographed during a dress rehearsal on Sept. 3. Joe Swaggerty, starring as Hal Carter, and Willa Beidler, portraying Millie, prepare for a race.

My immediate family has never done much of anything for Labor Day. With the holiday falling so close to the start of school, any kind of traveling vacation seemed an anti-climactic end to our kids’ “summer off.” Honestly, we never wanted to burden ourselves with elaborate plans when early bedtimes, back to school shopping, and lesson planning were impending.

The one thing we do is visit New Holland’s Community Memorial Park every Labor Day and soak in the sounds of the Fiddler’s Picnic. It only dawned on me this year that the event is not much of a picnic (as I define them in my mind as a blanket in the grass with sandwiches and drinks) as it is a huge gathering of musicians and spectators. There is no pot luck dinner, no awkward reintroduction to long lost relatives.

The days of the community picnic may be lost in nostalgia, when families would descend upon an open green and share food, merriment, and friendship. But, in 1953, in small towns across America, a Labor Day picnic like the setting of William Inge’s play “Picnic” was commonplace. Timed perfectly, the Pulitzer prize-winning play is the latest production to open at EPAC as a handsome crowd filled the Sharadin Bigler Theatre Thursday, Sept. 6 for opening night.

The story

Day breaks in a small Kansas town as we meet Hal Carter (Joe Swaggerty), a harmless, friendly, and handsome drifter who has been taken in by Helen Potts (Elizabeth Pattey), who lives alone with her aging mother. Potts’ new stray draws the suspicion of her neighbor, Flo Owens (Tricia Corcoran), who is raising two daughters — Madge (Taylor Coan) and Millie (Willa Beidler) — and rents a room to the schoolhouse spinster, Rosemary (Lynne DeMers-Hunt). The two houses share a common yard where the action takes place.

Hal is not strolling through town by chance; he is here to meet up with his fraternity brother Alan Seymour (Sean Deffley). Alan is from a “nice,” successful family and may soon be engaged to Madge Owens; there is nothing Flo would like more. Everyone is readying themselves for the big Labor Day picnic.

As the characters learn more about Hal and divulge their own defining traits — Millie is a rough and tumble girl; Madge may not be the brightest, but she sure is the prettiest; Flo was once scorned by love; Hal went to college only for his football prowess; etc. — it is decided the newcomer should naturally pair with the unspoken-for Millie (despite what seems to be a massive difference in age). Millie fully accepts this new proposition by turning into her finest girl self. But, by now, Hal’s eyes have turned toward the older sister, Madge. And her eyes have turned to his.

With everyone in good spirits, there is dancing, but the climate turns when Howard Bevans (Bob Checchia) comes calling as Rosemary’s picnic partner and draws a bottle of booze. Rosemary gets sloshed and envious, admonishing Hal. Millie finds the bottle and drinks herself sick. All of this happens before they even leave for the picnic!

Wounded, Hal stays behind. Madge has also been left behind as she went inside to change her dress. Their passion ignites. The two never make it to the picnic, opting to spend the night parked in the car.

Lynne DeMers-Hunt and Bob Checchia perform a scene from “Picnic” at Ephrata Performing Arts Center

Act III opens prior to daylight the next morning. Rosemary begs Howard to marry her. Even though Madge is ashamed of her actions, she cannot deny her new feelings for Hal. Quiet falls on the courtyard between the two homes.

As the new day begins, the story of our eight principal characters winds into a flurry of activity. Howard, in fact, does return to reluctantly whisk Rosemary away. Madge is lost in love. Flo is frantic. Alan, the wounded suitor in waiting, falsely reported Hal to the police overnight. Hal flees by jumping the nearby train and Madge decides to follow him, and her heart.

And, curtain. “Picnic” is a short, simple tale of the complexity of our human emotions, with an emphasis on how each individual defines love.

Saying a group of people are the who’s who of something is a bit old hat, but for the most part EPAC’s “Picnic” is a compilation of skilled performers accustomed to the Ephrata stage. DeMers-Hunt and Checchia, both members of the EPAC board of directors, show their ability to connect as players and create an onstage relationship that is a character in itself; despite their characters’ moments of seriousness, they become a smart element of humor in a show that could easily slip into a sappy tale of love.

Pattey and Corcoran have become pillars of strong woman portrayed; their ability to demonstrate strength and compassion on equal levels despite any character’s hardships is exemplary. I feel like Deffley is in everything these days; his serious dedication to the craft allows him to create unflinchingly realistic characters allowing the audience to slip into the drama before them without hesitation.

Coan is returning the local stage with her well pronounced sensitive sensibilities; she was seen at EPAC as Fiona in “Shrek the Musical” in 2015. Not previously mentioned is Ethan Reimel, who plays a bit part as Millie’s antagonist, Bomber; Reimel is becoming the young workhorse of local theatre, whether it is starring as the lead in an EPAC Kids4Kids production or working the follow spot behind the scenes. Also not previously mentioned are Lisa Harris and Cheri Fogleman who play Rosemary’s coworkers; Harris is a familiar face to local theatre, while Fogleman brings her talents to EPAC for the first time from New York, where she was a professional dancer, actor, and fitness instructor.

Swaggerty is also new to the EPAC stage. His confidence created a believable bravado for his character. The role is tricky. Hal has to be confident, but slightly aloof, honest, but also unbelievable. The actor portraying the often-shirtless hunk must convey a sensitive side mixed with part showman. Swaggerty seems to do this with ease.

I was most impressed with the talents of another newcomer, Willa Beidler. Her command of the character Millie was so good it was distracting, and I had to remind myself to focus on other aspects of the show. Millie is another character in need of an actor with large range. She is tough, yet vulnerable, young, but wiser than some adult characters. Beidler owns this role. She is a high school senior at Lancaster Mennonite and her short resume already has some impressive roles; I hope to see her more often at EPAC.

“Picnic” runs through Sept. 15. Tickets an be purchased online at ephrataperformingartscenter.com or by calling the box office at 717-733-7966.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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