William Inge is best remembered for a handful of works that he penned in the 1950s. Influenced by his friend Tennessee Williams, Inge wrote about men and women who sublimate their desires, but instead of New Orleans, his streetcar clanged through the polite boredom of middle-class Midwesterners in postwar America. Those passions are on display in Come Back, Little Sheba (1950) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic (1953), now running in rep at the Gym at Judson in two excellent Transport Group productions featuring a terrific cast that blows the dust off these somewhat dated classics.
Picnic takes place in a sleepy Kansas town near a railroad track whose whistling trains beckon 16-year-old aspiring novelist Millie (an irresistibly watchable Hannah Elless) with their promise of escape to the big city. On the morning of a Labor Day picnic, muscle-bound drifter Hal (played with sensitivity by David T. Patterson) returns to town after failing to make it big in Hollywood. He does chores for Mrs. Potts (Heather Mac Rae showing a restrained energy), who ogles the shirtless Hal with Rosemary, a self-described "old-maid schoolteacher" (Emily Skinner, embodying 1950s style). Millie's pretty sister, Madge (a magnetic Ginna Le Vine), has eyes for Hal too, but her mother (a stern Michele Pawk) wants her to marry Hal's former frat brother Alan (played with hot-tempered jealousy by Rowan Vickers). Things are fine while feelings stay bottled up, but a bottle of liquor imbibed before the picnic lets passions loose and leads to ill-advised decisions.
Alcohol abuse, with which Inge had firsthand experience, has a larger role to play in his domestic drama Come Back, Little Sheba. Doc (played with quiet desperation by Joseph Kolinski) is a former chiropractor whose alcoholism ruined his career, and his wife, Lola (played with listless resignation by Mac Rae), is a depressed housewife who mournfully calls out the front door to her lost dog, Sheba, every day. This childless, middle-aged couple rent out a room to college student Marie (Elless), the daughter they never had, and Doc cherishes her apparent innocence, even as he secretly fantasizes about her. But she hangs around with the hunky athlete Turk (Patterson), despite being engaged to a successful young man (Vickers). When Doc thinks her purity has been compromised, his reaction brings his marriage to the edge of collapse.
Jack Cummings III directs these plays with loving detail on open, pared-down sets (period-specific furniture and large wood-paneled backgrounds stand in for the houses and rooms in Dane Laffrey's scenic design). This is an apt choice for suggesting how vulnerable and exposed Inge's characters are to one another. R. Lee Kennedy's lighting also takes advantage of the sets' openness, allowing the orange glow of a sunset, for example, to rise between Madge and Hal as their eyes meet. At the same time, Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes, right down to Elless' saddle shoes, capture the feel of 1950s fashion and root the play in its time.
Miles Polaski's sound design in Little Sheba does that too, with its staticky radio commercials for Gillette razors and women's beauty products. (The ethereal music chosen for Picnic, however, feels a bit off the mark.) Cummings and his actors also enrich the production with small, telling details, like Lola trying to add flavor to her life by putting a pat of butter on her donut; Doc briefly lingering over Marie's scarf as it hangs on the back of a chair; Marie flirtatiously biting her finger when approached by Turk. With audience members in close proximity to the actors, some seated almost on the set itself, we are given many thoughtful subtleties to take in.
Inge's depiction of women is decidedly of its time. Skinner does a wonderful job portraying the desperation of Rosemary as she begs the marriage-averse Howard (convincingly played by John Cariani) to wed her. In the same way, Lola's reliance on her husband for any sort of meaning in her life may raise the eyebrows of modern audiences more than do the sexually provocative scenes. But then there's Elless and her magnificent portrayals of the independent-minded Millie and Marie. Elless' performances are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.
Cummings can't prevent the plots of Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba from veering toward the melodramatic at times, but their power for us today is that they open windows into a past that we often forget existed. In a time when some of us look back to a golden age in America when things were supposedly much better than they are now, Inge smashes that delusion, showing us slices of American life as it was, not as we choose to remember it.