In today’s Wall Street Journal I report with the utmost enthusiasm on the Transport Group’s revivals of a pair of plays by William Inge. (I also take note of the newly opened Broadway transfer of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, about which I raved when it was presented downtown last November at the Public Theater.) Here’s an excerpt.
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William Inge was a theatrical giant whose artistic stature is no longer as widely acknowledged as it ought to be. Fortunately, his plays have started to be revived with increasing frequency in New York and throughout America, and the Transport Group, which specializes in innovative off-Broadway productions of new and old American plays, is now mounting an Inge mini-festival. The company is presenting “Come Back, Little Sheba” and “Picnic,” Inge’s first two plays, in rotating repertory at the Gym at Judson, a downtown avant-garde performance space. That may seem like a stretch for a writer who knocked out four Broadway hits in a row between 1950 and 1957, all of which were turned into successful Hollywood movies. But Inge was no mere confectioner of cozy melodramas for the carriage trade: He was a soft-spoken poet of small-town loneliness and despair, and these revivals, staged by Jack Cummings III and acted by a first-class ensemble cast—14 actors, five of whom appear in both shows—will leave you in no doubt that he was one of America’s half-dozen greatest playwrights….
Simplicity and intimacy are the keys to these stagings, which are presented in a converted gymnasium before an audience of 85, most of whose members are close enough to the actors to be able to reach out and touch them. Storytelling is all: Mr. Cummings lets his actors go about their business without pasting a high directorial concept on top of either script. “Sheba” is played in the round on a stage full of shabby furniture, while the “set” for “Picnic” consists of three unpainted wooden flats and seven cheap, rusty metal lawn chairs. The acting is as naturalistic as are Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s penny-plain period costumes, and the playing area is small enough that nobody has to exaggerate: It’s as though you’ve stopped by for a visit, inadvertently arriving in the middle of a family crisis….
If you’ve never seen either play, trust me: This is how they ought to be done. If you have, you’ll feel as if you were looking at a pair of lovingly restored paintings from which thick layers of grime have been painstakingly scrubbed away….
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Read the whole thing here.
Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster appear in a scene from the 1952 film version of Come Back, Little Sheba, adapted for the screen by Ketti Frings and directed by Daniel Mann. Booth created her role in the original 1950 stage production of the play:
Scenes from the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2013 Broadway revival of Picnic, directed by Sam Gold: