Director Craig Belknap and his design team have mounted a lovely, gentle, faithful production of an American classic that can be, in less-capable hands, a real seat-squirmer. Aside from William Inge's haunted and often poetic dialogue spouted by the isolated denizens of a small Kansas farm community, this Pulitzer Prize winner, exposing the boredom of rural life and the sexual repression that all but overwhelms the local citizenry, didn't offer anything new about life and love and loneliness when it was first presented, in 1953. Today it can often seem to be more a sudsy, dated curiosity than to be an inspired work, but not this time out.
Belknap leads an outstanding group of actors on Michael C. Smith's charmingly detailed set of adjoining farmhouses, bringing the insular world of the Owens family to life with everything but real crickets. Although slightly hampered opening night by a few missed tech cues and bits of staging that haven't quite settled in yet—particularly the passionate embraces--the committed ensemble conjures a group of neighbors and friends who appear to be connected to one another. There are especially knockout performances by Deborah Strang as Rosemary, the desperate "old maid" schoolteacher with an itch; Mary Boucher as the no-nonsense Flo, matriarch of the clan who wants more for her daughters than the deal she got; and particularly Jennifer DeCastroverde, who channels the young Julie Harris as Flo's overlooked tomboy daughter Millie.
As Madge, the dumber, prettier daughter who wants to escape her job at the dime store, Libby West finds a subtle richness in her stock character, as does Andrew Hopper as the standard safe and wealthy beau who Madge, of course, throws over for Hal, the hunky drifter everyone is sure is up to no good. But as Hal, the obviously gifted Bo Foxworth has either been misdirected or miscast, never finding the heat and sensuality in the guy that would lead all the women in town to experience continuous hot flashes. Going too much for an almost aw-shucks down-home quality without generating the character's mandatory internal steam, Foxworth's Hal ends up to be more Bo Duke than Val Xavier loping into town in his snakeskin jacket, which ultimately hampers this otherwise nearly flawless production.