Loose Forces: Notes on Transport Group and William Inge

John Cariani and Emily Skinner in Picnic.

All of the houses and all of the people in plays by William Inge, Elia Kazan told me, are haunted by sex. Sex is the character--primary, for sure--that you will not find listed in the playbill, but it's there, doing its damage, rubbing a cheek, flashing some skin. "Sex," Kim Stanley said, was Inge's "spectral fan-dancer over in the corner," stealing time and attention from everyone.

When I was in college, Inge had been relegated to a remainder bin of American dramatists. Professors scoffed at his old-fashioned narratives and his Puritan ideas on sex. It was the 1970s, and we no longer were afraid of sex, ruled by sex, or identified by any one sexual activity. We could do as we wished. The great irony--and one I wish Inge were here to witness--is that we remain prisoners of sex (with apologies to Norman Mailer) and our sexual desires and histories are still over in the corner, a bad debt reminding us of past spending.

A corrective for those who admire Inge, and want to see him honored as one of the important dramatists of the latter half of the twentieth century, will be impressed, moved, and delighted by the productions of Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba being done in repertory by Transport Group and perfectly directed by Jack Cummings III.

When actors and directors feel superior to their material--when they begin to editorialize about their scripts--they can turn the play in which they feel trapped into a sort of vaudeville, and Inge productions have suffered from this. In the 2013 production of Picnic done at the Roundabout, and directed by Sam Gold, Elizabeth Marvel turned the desperate schoolteacher, Rosemary Sidney of Picnic, into a campy, man-hungry vamp out of a lesser Carol Burnett parody: all limbs and leers. The rest of the production was adjectives and abs. These productions by Transport are pure productions and shattering in their humanity.

Ginna Le Vine and David T. Patterson in Picnic.

To see these two plays performed together is to see Inge battling two modes of sexual obsession. In Picnic, an ambulatory phallus in the form of Hal (David T. Patterson), a muscular, sweaty, straightforward Adonis, finds himself cared for by Helen Potts (Heather MacRae), a sweet, lonely woman who bakes incessantly and cares for an invalid mother who, years earlier, ran after her errant, hormonal daughter, and had her marriage annulled. Helen now takes in male strangers, giving them odd jobs, making them her cakes and biscuits, and marveling at how nice a house feels when a man is in it: The sound of a man; the feel of a man.

To others loitering on a set of porches on Labor Day in a hot, dusty town, Hal is a threat and a bounty of eye candy. To Rosemary (Emily Skinner), the spinster schoolteacher desperate to get married to the spindly, furtive Howard (John Cariani), he is everything she has never had, the audience that might notice the many creams and ointments and perfumes she slathers on her body. Seeing Hal walk about shirtless or with sweat pressing his shirts into his pectorals, she realizes what she's missing, and she submits to Howard's own needs and then demands marriage, but not before she engages in a boozy dance with Hal, feeling some muscle before she heads off to an Ozark honeymoon with Howard, whose only used muscle is the brain that keeps him from committing to her. When Emily Skinner falls to her knees and begs Howard to marry her, we do not laugh as we have in other productions. This is not a cartoon, but a real, lonely, desperate woman, and the sadness in her conquest is that she has captured a measly prize, but at least she will not be alone, a boarder in a house full of unattached women, or haggling over napkins and entrees with the other unmarried schoolteachers, who are like Shakespearean witches hovering over a notions counter at Woolworth's.

Flo Owens (Michele Pawk), the owner of the house in which Rosemary boards, has two daughters: Madge (Ginna Le Vine), the pretty girl in town, and Millie (Hannah Elless), a tomboy who reads Carson McCullers and has landed a scholarship that will take her far past Tulsa, the last stop on the train that everyone hears and looks toward, praying for escape from this loveless town. Flo, we learn, had her own dances with a man, submitted, and was left, and she is convinced that Hal is the bad boy who will do nothing to her daughters and the other women in town but show them a good time and his taut backside as he leaves. Flo never got to the fullness of love, so she is not the best teacher or source of comfort to her daughter, who wanders from the handsome, sexless "good" boyfriend (Rowan Vickers) and follows the broad back of the bad boy out of town, to the end of the line.

Ginna Le Vine, Michele Pawk, and Hannah Elless in Picnic.

Every moment in the three acts of Picnic is perfectly pitched, and Inge is honored in every moment: There is no revision or editorializing. Some audience members were perplexed by the unfinished wood planks that comprised the set, a sort of Ikea backdrop, but Inge once told Kazan that when one's affections are rejected, when one goes inward to dreams, reveries, fantasies, the world in which one wanders sadly has no color, and nothing reflects. The porches on which these characters congregate could be attached to stately homes or to run-down tract homes, or to parched ruins. It doesn't matter, and depending upon which characters are in front of these panels, what they represent can be whatever you imagine them to be.

The plays of William Inge, particularly Picnic, have always been to me meditations on the mysteries that bubble and boil within us. Madge, the pretty and "good" girl, the one jeered at by boys in passing hot rods, is more than the girl on the candy box, wants more than the right boy with membership in the country club. Madge regrets that she isn't smart, and she winces with each taunt from Millie, who may know how to use her brain, but whose burgeoning body is so alien to her that she looks down at it as if she had discovered a foreign object in the back yard. Desires are welling up in both of these young women, and they have no idea how to express or fulfill them, and Flo just keeps sweeping up the hormones left on the porch with the dirt and dust. "This is a chicken coop into which a gorgeous fox has come," Kazan told Inge, during the brief period when he was considering taking on the direction of the play. (He chose instead to take on Tennessee Williams' Camino Real.) Cummings gives us this palpable sense of pleasure and peril, and David T. Paterson's Hal is crafted in such a way that you can imagine both chatting with him over a beer or mounting him with abandon.  When this production's Hal and Madge pair up, you can see that the two of them don't even know what to do with all they've been given. Gifts gone begging.

David T. Patterson and Hannah Elless in Come Back, Little Sheba.

If Picnic reveals to us what the rampant male can do to a woman, as well as to men (the discomfort of the men in the presence of  Hal's beauty is beautifully conveyed, and after Hal engages in horseplay with Madge's ideal boyfriend, he leaves the man soiled with sweat, his pants wet) then Come Back, Little Sheba is a lesson in what nefarious women with their amatory gifts can do to a man. Lola (Heather MacRae) was once a pretty, bubbly girl, and Doc (Joseph Kolinski) was a pre-med student from a good family. Doc submitted to Lola's charms and soft flesh, and she became pregnant, a family scandal that leaves Lola banished from her family, and Doc resigned to being a mere chiropractor. Doc and Lola take in boarders, and their latest, Marie (Hannah Elless) is not only everything Lola might have been, but she is the age of the baby that died in childbirth: She is a reminder of youth, of sex, of opportunities lost, and she hosts a boyfriend, Turk (David T. Patterson) who poses for her drawings in his track uniform, a goofy gonad. Doc fondles Marie's scarf and hates to think that Marie might be a wayward girl, dragging a man (however unworthy Doc feels he might be) down to a lower level. Sheba is Inge delving deepest into the depression of lives thwarted and frozen. Lola sleeps late, does not clean or cook well, has let herself go, and wanders in a haze, dressed in shifts and shuttling about the dusty house pining for her little dog, who, like youth and pretty flowers, just vanished into thin air. Doc has succumbed to alcohol, but is approaching his one-year anniversary in Alcoholics Anonymous, a fact that Lola shares with everyone, most desperately with a series of men (providing milk and mail, among other things) who visit her. (All are played to perfection by John Cariani.) 

Both characters are prisoners of fantasy--Lola is addicted to exotic soap operas, candy, stories from an embroidered past, and Doc has only the good china from his mother to remind him that he was once of some promise. Both of their inheritances (Lola's beauty and Doc's money from his family) have vanished, and they are seeking something to live for, to get up and do. Doc finds some solace in his morning serenity prayer and helping other alcoholics, but he chafes at the role. While Kolinski's Doc looks very respectable with his suspenders and tasteful suit, he also looks like a voyeur, a man who sweats when he gets around the things that used to arouse and comfort him. Lola calls him Daddy, and when she beams as he recites his prayer for her, I suddenly felt a chill and realized that Doc reminded me of no one so much as Mike Pence, our neutered, bound, closeted Vice President. The ultimate, destructive outburst from Doc does not surprise us, since Kolinski is one tight, white collar waiting to be ripped open. 

There are revelations throughout the productions, and in Picnic, I was particularly taken with Michele Pawk's Flo: tough, straightforward, blanched from the sun and the truths of a life of hard work and hard choices. There is not a false move in this performance, and when she snatches a copy of a McCullers novel from her youngest daughter, her face pinched in judgment, you can feel how threatened she is by the fact that she knows nothing and is going to be abandoned by her adventurous daughter. She relents and returns the book to her daughter only when Madge's good boyfriend, from the right side of town and from college, tells her it is acceptable. Flo has spent her life following the dictates of everyone and everything but her heart, and Pawk lets us see that denial, as well as her ultimate acceptance of things to come. 

Emily Skinner, who has stunned us in musicals, is a buoyant, attention-seeking gal, but she successfully keeps her performance from broadness: There are great details in everything she does, from the manner in which she oils her face, to how she flirts with Howard, to how she gossips about other women. Skinner's Rosemary falls from a great height, and we fall with her, even as we tell ourselves that she could do better, but could she? Is there really anyone else to whom her attributes might be appealing? Inge is unafraid to have his characters face harsh questions, and Skinner is unafraid to be unmasked, beaten down, conflicted.  Her performance is a tour-de-force within the play, a wave of forced humor to beat back the truth and the heat.

Heather MacRae is the revelatory actress in these productions. As Helen Potts in Picnic, the character Inge claimed was his representative, she is the observer, the person left behind and on the sidelines as life passes by. Helen ruefully comments that her cakes are all that people come to her for, and everything she might have poured into a man or a child or a life, she pours into pans and tins. Helen is kind and might seem a caricature of a Midwestern biddy, but she's the one with the best advice, the sanest take on things, and even when she is disappointed in Hal, her responses are balanced and open. MacRae gives us the open-faced beauty and kindness of Helen, but you see moments when she gently sighs and tells her sick mother, yelling from upstairs, to be patient, and you realize that she, too, could burst at any moment.

MacRae's Lola, in Sheba, is a Valentine stepped on, dirtied, abandoned. Unable to even lift her slippered feet, Lola can never quite wake up, until she can find an audience for her stories and her kindness. Without an outlet for her affections, Lola is unkempt, unfocused, a disgrace to her officious neighbor (expertly played by Jennifer Piech), and of little help to her distressed husband. (How insane is that bottle of booze on the refrigerator? You wonder if Lola might want the outburst that comes just to jostle the day.)  Whenever a fact--good or bad--forces its way into Lola's life, MacRae's eye will twitch, and a quick smile will animate her face, but you also see how she's maneuvering to make something happen, to make some noise, get some attention, give some happiness. MacRae so fully inhabits the house in which she lives that I came to love just watching her stumble about, humming and beaming inwardly or dolefully searching for something.

Heather MacRae and Joseph Kolinski in Come Back, Little Sheba. 

In an evening of mastery, Cummings outdoes himself with both his opening and closing scenes in Sheba. The play opens and we see Doc quietly and meticulously preparing his coffee, opening a bakery box for a sweet roll, praying silently, keeping the space about him neat and clean. This may be a moment in which he finds some peace. At the conclusion of the play, after the submission to drink, the visit to the city hospital, Doc returns, chastened, sunken, repentant. He begs Lola never to leave him, and she takes him to the kitchen, seats him at the same table, and she begins to prepare his breakfast. Doc is devastated, head lowered, and Lola, given a job she has long wanted, begins to care for him, and all we hear in that empty house is the fork hitting the sides of the bowl as she scrambles his eggs.

Peace and placement. Both temporary, perhaps. But these characters have found each other; they have found a home. It is a shattering and brilliant moment, and it is with me still.

The plays have been extended until April 23rd, and should be extended again.


Popular Posts