FORT WORTH FORT WORTH Not even ants or rain could ruin this Picnic.
The Stolen Shakespeare Guilds production of William Inges Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1953, which opened Friday at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, shines with outstanding direction, some good acting and an abundance of evocative visual elements.
The action in this sexually charged drama takes place on a Labor Day in rural Kansas, where plans are underway for the annual dinner on the grounds. But the natural order of things in this sleepy outpost of civilization is severely disrupted by the arrival of a handsome stranger, Hal Carter (Nicholas Ross), whose ever-shirtless presence upsets the local womenfolk especially the three female members of the Owens family, mother Flo (Cynthia Matthews) and daughters Madge (Connie Kegg) and Millie (Marisa Duran).
But it turns out that Hal is not a stranger to all. He is the unlikely former college buddy of Alan Seymour (Dave Harris), a rich mans son who has long been wooing the dimly lit, but beautiful, Madge. What ensues after these characters are thrown together has a lot more to do with human hearts and life decisions than with fried chicken and apple pie.
The most compelling aspect of this production is the highly creative and unerringly sensitive direction by Bill Sizemore. He captures the mood and tone of this American classic beautifully and uses his actors like instruments in an orchestra. The gossipy neighbors chirp like flutes, Alan blares like a trumpet, Hal is as cool and slick as a saxophone, and Madge, of course, is all violins. Sizemore molds these elements into a symphony that seldom misses a note.
And, as if that werent enough, Sizemore also designed the shows large and gorgeous set. He makes excellent use of that space and adds some very effective visual and aural touches with the aid of Branson Whites fine lighting design and Phyllis Clayton-Huautes sound plan.
Most of the acting is also first-rate. Mark Winter and Sarah Greenman, as the shows older couple, Howard and Rosemary, are especially good. They are perfectly cast and aggrandize their parts without resorting to any trickery. Duran, as Madges bratty (but rapidly maturing) little sister, is also exceptional. She always keeps us aware of the budding woman hidden by the tomboy exterior. Matthews, who has become something of a regular at Stolen Shakespeare, is solid as a rock as a mother watching an emotional train wreck she cannot stop.
This is not a perfect production. Ross and Kegg, for example, are ideally cast and have fabulous chemistry, but they are also still works in progress. Yet there is not a single actor in this show whom I do not hope to see again soon.
Overall, Sizemore has given us a version of this well-worn work that seethes with passion, while moving and hitting with the speed and power of a freight train. There are bigger houses with bigger budgets that might be able to offer a better take on this classic than this mostly amateur troupe. But you are not likely to ever see a show that offers more bang for your buck (and the companys) than this one.