While researching playwright William Inge in order to direct "Picnic" at Wichita Center for the Arts this week, Shaun-Michael Morse discovered that the Kansas native had actually written two versions of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play about small-town Kansas life in the 1950s.
The first premiered on Broadway in 1953, but legendary director Josh Logan objected to Inge's original ending and insisted that he rewrite it to be more upbeat.
"Logan was convinced that the original ending wasn't commercial and wouldn't play with audiences. It was the 1950s and everything had to have a happy ending," Morse says.
In Inge's first draft of the play, Madge, the restless small-town beauty who falls for a handsome drifter, planned to run away with him to get out of her dead-end town but chickens out at the last minute and poignantly resigns herself to a safe, if stultifying, future.
In Logan's Broadway version, and again in Logan's 1955 movie version with Kim Novak and William Holden, Madge follows her heart and the drifter.
Morse says that Inge was so enraged by Logan's changes that he stewed for 20 years and subsequently rewrote his seminal tale as "Summer Brave," which opened in 1973 just two months before the
troubled playwright committed suicide. In this version the playwright restored his original ending.
"It's the same characters and the same story but a lot darker in feel and texture, a lot denser and more literary with less realistic dialogue and more introspective monologues — and with a tragic ending. I liked aspects of both versions so I decided to adapt them together for a new version," Morse says. "I've been working on this for a year. It has the flow of the original but with some of the more mature insights of the older, worldlier Inge from the rewrite."
But Morse declines to say which ending he chose.
The play opens Wednesday and runs through April 25 in the Irene Vickers Baker Theatre in the Center for the Arts. It concludes the 2009-2010 season, which celebrated Kansas playwrights.
Playing Madge, the 18-year-old beauty chosen queen of the town's annual picnic (based on Inge's hometown of Independence and its Halloween Neewollah festival) is Wichita State University theater graduate Briley Meek. Playing her hardworking single mother, Flo Owens, who dreams of marrying her off to the town banker's son for status and security, is local stage veteran Crystal Meek — Briley's real-life mom.
"It makes for a really surprising dynamic to have real-life mother and daughter play stage mother and daughter," the director says.
Hal, the handsome drifter with a somewhat shady, mysterious past (which makes him even more attractive to the town gossips), is played by Chris Roberts, another WSU theater grad. And Alan, the banker's son and Madge's fiance, is played by Nicholas Barton. Maize High junior Jordyn Cox is Madge's tomboyish younger sister, Millie, and East High junior Keaton Jadwin is Bomber, Millie's classmate who is smitten with her older sister.
Michele Marshall is Rosemary, a spinster teacher who brags that she doesn't need a man but is secretly yearning for her longtime beau, Howard (Tony Princ, to "make an honest woman" of her. Rosemary's fellow teachers and fellow gossips are Irma (Diane Tinker) and Christine (Stacey Chestnut). The wise next-door neighbor, Mrs. Potts, who still loves going against convention, is veteran Joyce Cavarozzi.
Combining "Picnic" and "Summer Brave" also allowed Morse to simplify and open up the set.
"The original play calls for two large home facades, one for Mrs. Owens and her girls and one for Mrs. Potts, that take up almost all of the stage. The rewrite eliminates one house, making it just out of sight offstage. That gave us a lot more room for the actors," Morse says. "I'm also all about symbolism so I replaced the house with an old tree symbolizing Mrs. Potts' wisdom, ready to shelter anyone who needs it."
The set is by Dan Williams, lights by Sean Roberson, sound by Nick Smith and costumes by Rebecca Maholland.
If you go
What: Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Kansas native William Inge
Where: Wichita Center for the Arts, 9112 E. Central
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. April 25
How much: $20 adults, $18 members/seniors, $10 students; call box office at 316-315-0151 or online at www.wcfta.com