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Highly conceptualized ‘Picnic’ tells a passionate, riveting story

Molly Brennan and Malic White star in "Picnic" at American Theater Company. | MICHAEL BROSILOW PHOTO

American Theater Company artistic director Will Davis has inflicted a whole lot of concept on his staging of William Inge’s 1953 drama “Picnic.” Read the script (or see a traditional production) and you’ll find a moving exploration of a the crippling oppressiveness of rigidly conservative small-town values, twined around a compelling commentary on society’s worship of skin-deep beauty.

‘PICNIC’
Recommended
When: Through April 23
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron
Tickets: $38
Info: Atcweb.org

Davis has other ideas. In press releases, program notes and interviews, he’s asserted that “Picnic” is actually a reflection of Inge’s struggle as a closeted gay man – of his “internal landscape,” and the “forces in [Inge’s] own psyche that kept him from happiness and fulfillment.” Rather than taking the each richly drawn character at face value, Davis insists each one “articulates a piece of Inge’s struggle.”

I’ve long taken a dim view of anyone who claims a direct clear and pipeline into the minds and hearts of playwrights. Unless you’re both demonstrably psychic and a trained psychiatrist (and even then), to do so is a stretch.

But for all the heavy-handed psychobabble that Davis hauls onto the table, “Picnic” is a beautiful, moving piece of theater. The cast brings an exquisite honesty to every resonant word of dialogue, so much so that you’d never suspect the director was foisting his interpretation of Inge’s emotional and mental health into the text.

That plot unfolds over the course of a few hot summer days, as a small Connecticut town excitedly plans for its annual picnic. The event, says one character, gives everyone something “romantic and thrilling” to look forward to. Those are the very qualities exuded by Hal, a drifter who swaggers into town radiating unabashed sexuality. Hal unnerves everyone around him, setting scandalized tongues wagging. Scandal does indeed ensue as Hal leads one you woman to escape a lifetime minus passion, adventure and autonomy.

This isn’t a traditional staging. Molly Brennan, who identifies as female, plays Hal. Malic White, who identifies as trans, plays Madge, the beautiful young woman seen by everyone in town as the ideal embodiment of womanhood: Docile, not smart and destined for a life of marriage and baby-making.

White and Brennan give performances that transcend moribund gender labels. Biology isn’t the important part of Hal and Madge’s relationship. Passion is, and these two make that passion incendiary.

That said, Hal and Madge’s struggle to be together hits harder if you consider the struggles gender non-conforming folks face. Study after study has shown they’re far more likely to experience violence than cis-gender people (those whose personal identity and gender corresponds with the gender assigned at birth). When Inge raises the specter of violence in “Picnic,” it’s impossible not to conflate that threat with the brutality trans people face in the real world.

There’s a similar nuance to the insults lobbed at Madge’s younger sister Millie (transwoman Alexia Jasmene). When the neighborhood brat calls Millie a goon, there’s an added layer of cruelty. Jasmene fills Millie’s yearning to be seen and to be loved for who she is is beautifully colored with sorrow and urgency.

Then there’s the wrenching, powerful performance turned in by Michael Turrentine. He plays Rosemary, a lonely schoolteacher who keeps up a brave face despite a deep-down desperation to marry her longtime beau. When Rosemary finally lets the mask drop, Turrentine reveals Rosemary’s bone-deep, shame-faced neediness. It’s a moment that will resonate with anyone who has ever loved someone who didn’t quite love them back.

Davis’ addition of music to the production – manifested by sound designer Miles Polaski – is masterful. In addition to vividly playing several of the townswomen, Laura McKenzie provides a strings-and-piano accompaniment that ties the scenes together with haunting music as delicate as gossamer.

Joe Schermoly minimalist set – a raked stage covered in a pastel flowered cloth and strewn with baskets of gauzy laundry – helps give the productions dreamlike feel. With Rachel Levy’s luminous lighting design, “Picnic” almost seems like a memory at times. That slightly surreal feel is heightened by stylized movement choreographed by Davis and Evvie Allison. When the cast moves as one, it’s with a balletic grace that looks like the physical manifestation of heartache complicated by both joy and regret.

Davis eases the audience into the world of the play gradually: The cast begins speaking in monotone, looking directly into the audience rather than each other. The words and the action slip so gently into the Connecticut town where the action unfolds you almost don’t notice the change until it’s wholly complete.

Skip the program notes, and you’ll find much to love in “Picnic.” It’s powerful, compelling theater. There’s no need to psychoanalyze the playwright.