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“I’ve always been glad that I grew up in Independence, [Kan.,] because I feel it gave me a knowledge of people and a love of people,” the playwright William Inge said in 1970. “I’ve often wondered how people raised in our great cities ever develop any knowledge of humankind. People who grow up in small towns get to know each other so much more closely….”

As dated as Inge’s plays surely are, they still glow with that love of people—and the concomitant sadness resulting from devotion to such unreliable beings. His 1953 work, Picnic, uses its small-town-Kansas backdrop to emphasize that midcentury, Midwestern, far-horizon endlessness of possibilities, coupled with the intense claustrophobia that comes from everyone’s neighbors knowing everyone’s business. The folks in this burg know who they’re expected to be—the pretty girl or the smart girl, the big country-club businessman or the little shop-owner, the lonely widow or the spinster schoolteacher. But in quiet moments, left to themselves, left to their hopes and doubts, they’re not really sure they fit the parts they’ve been assigned, and through books or booze, solitude or sex, they’re aching to find out.

In an uneven but ultimately winning production directed by Steven Scott Mazzola, the American Century Theater brings us to that Independence of mind. At a show last weekend, the first of three acts dragged, but thereafter the pacing, and the players’ confidence and ensemble cohesion, picked up markedly, bringing out the infrequently performed script’s pathos and good-natured humor.

The pretty girl is 18-year-old Madge Owens (Jeanne Dillon), and the smart girl is her younger sister, Millie (Mary Rasmussen). That the pretty one is also wise, and the smart one also lovely, almost goes without saying. Their single mother, Flo (Sheri S. Herren), in her soft-spoken but forceful way, is trying to shepherd Madge into a good marriage with Alan Seymour (Jason Lott), a clean-cut, conventional scion of the country-club crowd. On a Labor Day weekend in the late ’40s or early ’50s, their steady world lurches when a swaggering stud named Hal Carter (Peter Cassidy) steps onto the scene, shirtless, doing manly chores for the neighbor lady, Mrs. Potts (Rhonda Hill). Also knocked off balance by Hal’s arrival is the Owens’ boarder, the lonely, local high school typing teacher Rosemary Sydney (Kathryn Fuller), to whom sousy beau Howard Bevans (Kevin Adams) seems at once all the more inconsequential, and all the more crucial, to her long-term happiness. These folks’ dreams and dreads all come to a head on the evening of the Owens-Potts Labor Day picnic for family, anticipated family, and friends.

The Pulitzer-winning drama fell into disfavor in the ’60s for its retro notions of women’s defining themselves in relation to the means, protection, and approbation of men. In the coolness of a half-century’s distance, though—as the director’s program note suggests—that viewpoint is forgiven as indicative of an ambivalent time, when Rosie the Riveter was expected to either go back to housework and let her husband have his old job back, or keep on riveting, alone, and for little pay. More fundamentally, Picnic highlights the near-universal conflict between following one’s head and one’s heart, should those quarters have the misfortune, at some juncture, of pointing in different directions. And that, of course, isn’t a small-town dilemma—just a human one.

It’s the one faced by Madge, who’s seen by her steady, Alan, as a trophy, if a highly prized one. He wants to take her on a late-night canoe ride after the picnic to see if she’s still real in the moonlight. “Don’t say that,” she protests, assuring him, sadly, that she is (even though she confesses to her mother that sometimes only long sessions staring in the mirror can convince her herself). Hal, a onetime star athlete who’s starred at nothing else, is worldly, if not wise, and he doesn’t need convincing that Madge is real. And he knows what nice, real girls do when they’re more concerned with becoming women than with staying nice.

Dillon, as Madge, gives a thoughtful, resonant performance. You believe this woman-child—in her post-graduation fog, facing work at the dime store or tepid passions with her steady—when she laments, “It’s no good just to be pretty. It’s no good.” Cassidy seems not quite sure what to do with his beefcakey role at first, but he finds his way, carving out its lasagna-layered depths of anger, envy, sincerity, and passion as he goes along. “I’ve always had the feeling if I just had the chance I could set the whole world on fire,” he says. For better and for worse, we suspect that he could. And Lott is quite good in the difficult part of Alan, whose place is largely to indicate his seething and insecurities beneath a polite, tense smile. Rasmussen glows, but in a balanced, considered way, in the supporting but crucial part of Millie, who as the bookish, slightly marginal youngster seems to be a retrospective stand-in for Inge. In what you might call life imitating art imitating life, Rasmussen is headed, the program tells us, back to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where, this production suggests, she’s bound for a promising future.

Herren could use a bit more edge as Flo but is emotionally credible as the once-bitten, twice-wary heartland hen guarding her adventuresome chicks. Fuller has the toughest role, because Rosemary is alternately written as a figure of fun and a prospect for potential personal tragedy. She slaloms those gates as well as anyone could, and she brings a palpable desperation to her key moonlight scene with Howard. And as Howard, Adams suggests a wonderfully down-to-earth knowledge of his own limits in the commitment and self-restraint departments, even as he tries to surmount them, with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man headed for hanging.

Eric Grims’ back-porch set, with its angled impressionist centerpiece painting of fields and clouds, is very fine, as is the period costuming—particularly the household and party dresses—by Michele Reisch. Michael Perryman’s sound work, on the other hand, is minimal but still manages to be a bit distracting and irritating, from the looped Muzak and blues numbers recycling during intermissions to the sometimes ill-timed engine sounds that are meant to indicate cars pulling up.

That aside, the cumulative impact of the production is akin to what Millie tells Hal she gets from reading books—”kind of warm inside and sad and amused, all at the same time.” Like a breeze across a late-summer plain, Picnic is a stirring reminder that in life and love, the only thing scarier than being held is being held back. CP