The issue of race floats lazily over the new Fresno State production of “Picnic” — not in an oppressive way but in a fresh, vital manner that makes this classic play resonate just a little differently than if it were done with white actors in all the leading roles.
Thomas-Whit Ellis, who specializes in African-American dramatic literature at the university, often devotes his annual directing slot in the season lineup to plays that speak to race and diversity. With “Picnic,” which has long been a staple of college and community theater productions ever since William Inge wrote it in 1953, he’s opted for a more oblique racial statement. He cast a black actor (Brandin Hamilton) in the pivotal role of Hal Carter, the stormy stranger who pops up in a small Kansas town one day and causes a minor bit of havoc in the life of the pretty Madge Owens (Ashley Hyatt) and her family.
It’s interesting to note how Hal, who is depicted in the text as a cocky, occasionally overbearing, “wrong-side-of-the-tracks” man who got into college on a football scholarship and was never truly accepted by his upper-crust peers, relates to the other characters in the play when he’s depicted by a black actor. Parallels can be drawn with a disadvantaged lower-class white existence: the feeling that Hal isn’t “good enough” romantically for the higher-class Madge; her mother’s worry that he’s too sexually confident; his relegation by his snooty fraternity brothers to a lower social rung because sports got him into college, not brains. All are stereotypes, of course, but it’s easy to extrapolate the vague sense of social unease that the townspeople feel toward Hal into the realm of racial politics as well.
The racial impact is subtle, but I think it helps give this classic production — which still has so much to say about gender roles, in particular — a contemporary sheen.
Hamilton gives a fine, focused performance as Hal, whether he’s scurrying about the stage with bravado or working his romantic charm on the bevy of ladies who coo over him. I liked, in particular, the vulnerability we sense in this brash, pumped-up character. He’s matched in intensity and impact by Hyatt’s well-crafted Madge, who doesn’t so much pine for the thrill of a raucous love affair as ache for a decisive bolt from the straight-and-narrow path that her gender and station in life seem to demand.
Bryttani McGhee handles with aplomb the older role of Helen Potts, the next-door-neighbor who first takes in Hal. I’ve seen McGhee in a variety of roles at Fresno State, and it’s a pleasure to watch her tackle such a different kind of role with such impact. Other strong performers are Jered Hobbs as Madge’s boyfriend, Sarah Lofgren as a husband-seeking boarder and Justin Ringhofer as her reluctant beau.
Izzy Einsidler’s sound design gives the production a lot of punch — I actually thought for a moment that a real car was pulling up to the Owens house — and Ashley Manfredi’s lighting design, playing across Jeff Hunter’s sturdy set, nicely shifted time of day and mood. Kelly Pantzlaff’s costumes slickly evoked the era.
One flaw: I was a little disappointed on opening night in the final moments of the play, which have always for me in the past been absolutely breath-takingly riveting. There’s something about the staging here that seemed rushed and flat.
The intensity of production added a lot, however. And so did Ellis’ interesting approach to race, of course. The issue is very lightly dusted by Ellis on top of Inge’s classic romantic intrigue, but it’s there nonetheless. Best of all, it doesn’t feel heavy-handed, just thought-provoking.