UA theater students prepare a bittersweet ‘Picnic’

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Jimmy Ferko and Alyssa Whiddon star in William Inge's Picnic, opening Wednesday, March 5, and continuing through March 15 at the University of Akron. (courtesy University of Akron)
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Despite the prospect that the University of Akron theater program may be suspended along with 54 other majors, adjunct professor Aubrey Caldwell Davis and her cast of 11 are forging ahead with their production of Picnic in an effort to create meaningful, professional-quality theater.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Inge tells the story of Hal, a stranger who comes to a small town on Labor Day weekend in the early 1950s and rattles both the young and older women. Hal, who has a troubled past, is painfully aware he’s an outsider and self-conscious of his failings. But his exciting vitality leads the town beauty to risk nearly everything for him and also stirs long-suppressed discontent in a spinster schoolteacher.

For both the cast and Caldwell Davis, rehearsing last week before their opening, mounting this play has been bittersweet.

“They are fully aware that this possibly could be the last show, although nothing’s confirmed,” Caldwell Davis said of her cast. “We all know it’s happening but at the same time it doesn’t stop us from doing what we can control, which is the quality of the production we’re doing right now.”

Caldwell Davis, who is directing her third mainstage production in four years at the University of Akron, said more than 380 students, including nonmajors, are enrolled in theater classes at UA.

For this spring production, which runs tonight through March 15, she wanted to focus on a contemporary American playwright.

“This play is about real flesh-and-blood characters,” she said. “I try to pick a story each year that I felt … would help them [the students] prepare professionally.”

Leading man Jimmy Ferko, who recently transitioned from the music school to theater, is performing in his second show ever and his first lead role. Ferko’s acting skills and his chemistry with the female actors auditioning for the role of beauty Madge made him stand above the rest, Caldwell Davis said.

“I believed he was in love with every single girl he kissed,” she said.

According to the director, Ferko is so committed to his role, he has dramatically altered his physique to play the hunky, shirtless Hal, dieting and hitting the gym seven days a week for more than three months to build muscle.

At rehearsal, Caldwell Davis ran sound from her laptop and shouted out encouragement to the cast before starting Act II of the three-act play.

“Fricking diction! Come on, guys, you can do it!” she called out as they waited in the backstage area of Sandefur Theatre.

“This is the realest I’ve seen you guys.”

“Jimmy, I believe you’re a hoodlum!” she called out to Ferko.

The play, set in adjoining backyards of two middle-aged widows, features a realistic-looking set with full-scale back porches. Wednesday night, the cast rehearsed a pivotal scene in which Madge (Alyssa Whiddon) and Hal dance together for the first time and look like they’ve been together forever. The climax of the act occurs when an out-of-control Rosemary (Tara Sudon) verbally assaults Hal.

UA’s production of Picnic overlaps with Actors’ Summit’s production of Bus Stop downtown, which is directed by Ric Goodwin, Caldwell Davis’ former college professor at Ashland University and her longtime mentor.

The UA Theatre Arts Program will host a Drama Day Saturday at Sandefur Theatre for local high school students to learn about theater design and tech, voice and movement, as well as playwright Inge. The full-day event will include discussions by Actors’ Summit as well as Caldwell Davis about the Inge works. High school students then will see a matinee performance of Picnic, participate in a talk-back discussion and have the opportunity to see Bus Stop at Actors’ Summit in the evening.

Caldwell Davis said the group is enjoying the synergy with the professional theater just around the corner from UA as her actors — who saw Bus Stop opening weekend — continue to hone their craft.

“Regardless of what happens to this department, they know I will always be there for them,” she said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.


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