William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize–winning play Picnic is being brought to the Theatre Erindale stage as the fourth show of its season. Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending the preview performance of the play, directed by Patrick Young. The cast included 11 of the 20 graduating students of the Sheridan-UTM Theatre and Drama Studies Program.
This modern classic takes us back to small-town middle America, specifically a 1952 Kansas, where two teenage sisters, Madge, “the pretty one”, and Millie, “the smart one”, struggle to find out who they are and dream of what they hope to become. The story unravels the insecurities, doubts, regrets, and anxieties of the surrounding characters, who are all fighting their own internal battles. What is not expected among the group is the young, shirtless drifter Hal Carter, who shakes up the pot on his arrival.
Roberto Esteves stars as former college football star Hal Carter, who, right from his first line, exudes a charm and charisma that lights up the stage—not to mention that he’s topless for most of the first act. He delivers an excellent and (what seems to be) effortless performance as a college dropout who struggles with his own insecurities, troubled past, and the recent fears of a future with little opportunity.
Eilish Waller also gave a good performance as the “oh so beautiful” soft and delicate Madge Owens, who struggles to find more meaning to life than just being pretty. Millie (Olivia Orton), Madge’s younger sister, gave an all-or-nothing stellar performance as a teen who finds comfort in reading books and who aspires one day to make it as a big-time author in New York City. Both are from a modest family, and Madge carries the pressure of marrying her Ivy League boyfriend, Alan Seymour (Thomas Ketchum), in order to secure a promising future. However, sparks begin to fly between Madge and Hal. Waller and Esteves have a mesmerizing chemistry and carry off this romantic relationship perfectly.
Hannah Ehman as high school teacher Miss Rosemary Sydney was intriguing to watch. From the moment she stepped onto the stage with her vibrant red hair, slippers, and pink nightgown, you just knew she was going to make you laugh, and she did. From a drunken dance with Hal to a desperate plea to Howard Bevans to marry her, Ehman had one of the more demanding roles. But she captured the audience’s attention in every scene and conveyed her impeccable range as a performer.
Laura McCallum, who played the widower Flo Owens, provided a nice balance among the characters as the practical and concerned mother of Madge and Millie. What intrigued me about McCallum’s performance was how well she embodied the characteristics of a middle-aged woman in her facial expressions and body language—from the way she delivered her lines, it was easy to forget that McCallum is a young graduate-to-be.
Two performances I can’t omit are Angelica Appelman and Katie Cattell-Daniels, who held smaller roles as Miss Kronkite and Christine Schoenwalder. Not only did their witty comments often make the audience laugh, but they also demonstrated how women in their position in the 1950s thought, acted, and portrayed themselves within their communities.
Director Patrick Young said the actors “had to be very brave to take this on because it does call for a lot of emotional, physical, and sexual exposure”.
The biggest challenge “was moving from moment to moment with clarity and specificity […],” added McCallum. “It’s a fast-moving show with conversation topics changing every page.” However, she felt that in tonight’s preview performance the cast “had definitely found a natural way of moving through the play”.
This show will remain close to the hearts of these soon-to-be grads as it is the last time they will perform at Theatre Erindale together. “It has been a very sentimental experience,” said McCallum.
Picnic runs till February 1 at Theatre Erindale. The ticket price for students is $12; tickets can be purchased online or in person at the box office.
This article has been corrected from the print edition. It read “modern version of the classic play” rather than the intended “modern classic”.