Season-ending 'Picnic' a true joy

University Theatre puts on best production in years

University Theatre opened its spectacular production of William Inge's "Picnic" Friday. Director Jack B. Wright has done a marvelous job bringing the prize-winning play back to the university stage, and the revival is especially notable for celebrating the play's 50th anniversary.

Inge, himself a Kansas University graduate, set "Picnic" in a small Kansas town in 1955, at the peak of America's "innocence" and (though he couldn't have known it at the time) on the cusp of massive social changes that were to come a few years later. The action takes place on Labor Day in a yard between the homes of Helen Potts and Flo Owens (Laura Leffler-McCabe and Robin Murphy). Helen has taken in drifter Hal Carter (Darren Maloney), who attracts the attention of Flo's teenage daughters -- the older Madge (Samara Naeymi) and high-schooler Millie (Hannah Ballou).

While Flo wants the gorgeous Madge to marry longtime boyfriend Alan Seymour (Andrew York) and live a privileged, upper-class life, Madge is torn between what she wants and what others want for her. Meanwhile the brainy Millie, who sheds her tomboy ways as the play progresses, knows what she wants out of life: to be a writer.

"Picnic" is a play about choices, scandals, values, growing older and things left unsaid.

Sometimes it's the little things that make the difference between good and great, and scenic and lighting director Delbert Unruh has a grasp of them. Small touches of authenticity, like the wallpaper of the Owens' home seen though the front door, the white picket fences, sound effects and the vintage light fixtures above both houses not only add to the effective evocation of an era, but are a strong testament to Unruh's skills.

The acting is also top-notch. The foursome of Madge and Millie and Hal and Alan play off each other wonderfully, each character perfectly complementing the counterpart -- Millie's brains to Madge's looks, or Alan's white-collar upbringing to Hal's ruggedness.

The show, which closes KU's summer season, will run again at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Crafton-Preyer Theatre at KU's Murphy Hall. It will then open KU's fall season Sept. 5-7.

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