The backyard in question is shared by no-nonsense Flo Owens (Mare Winningham), her teenaged daughters, beauty queen Madge (the stunningly gorgeous Maggie Grace) and bookworm Millie (Madeleine Martin), and Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn), a lively older woman stuck caring for her demanding elderly mother. The friends’ plan to host their annual Labor Day picnic gets thrown for a loop when Helen temporarily takes in Hal Carter (an overly buffed Sebastian Stan, who must have had a 1950’s gym membership), a drifter who has come to town to reconnect with his former fraternity brother, Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport) – who happens to be Madge’s boyfriend.
Hal’s physical machismo and bad-boy charm immediately intrigues almost all the ladies, including Flo’s boarder, the seemingly prim schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney (Elizabeth Marvel). But it’s his supposed instant chemistry with Madge that sets the plot in motion, and the production slightly suffers because it takes a bit too long for us to feel any real heat between them. Moreover, although Grace (who is making her Broadway debut) deftly manages to make us feel Madge’s frustration for being valued solely for her looks, the actress is perhaps a tad too mature to have us believe in the character’s virginity and naiveté, both of which are willingly taken away by Hal.
While Stan and Grace ably anchor the show, this Picnic‘s true treats lie in many of its supporting performances. Burstyn, who initially seems to be slumming it by taking a fairly small role, gives Helen a surprisingly kittenish vitality that is practically intoxicating. The ever-expert Winningham never strikes a false note as the slightly bitter but loving Flo. Having married a man who proved to be a less-than-ideal husband, she is desperate for Madge to marry the wealthy Alan. Meanwhile, Martin is a revelation as the sharp-tongued yet truly vulnerable Millie, who understands that she needs to escape Kansas if her smarts and artistic talent are ever to be prized more than her sister’s flawless appearance.
Ultimately, however, the real heart of Picnic lies in the bittersweet relationship between Rosemary and her beau, Howard Bevans, a middle-aged storeowner, beautifully played by an understated Reed Birney. Even though the often-breathtaking Marvel lets us know early on that Rosemary’s supposed disdain for marriage is a little more than a badly disguised front, the third-act scene in which all her pretenses are stripped bare and the slightly terrified Howard realizes the time has finally come to put up or shut up – should be studied by acting (and directing) students everywhere.
Indeed, even if the world of Picnic remains both miles and decades away, Gold and his accomplished cast have discovered how to make this underappreciated play feel like a feast for contemporary audiences.