WILLIAMSTOWN — The first-ever full production of William Inge’s “Off the Main Road’’ is a bona fide Event. If only the play were better.
Apart from its newsworthiness, there’s an inherent value to exploring every facet of a playwright as consequential as Inge, the author of “Picnic,’’ “Bus Stop,’’ and “Come Back, Little Sheba.’’ So it’s understandable that Mandy Greenfield, the new artistic director at Williamstown Theatre Festival, would choose it to launch her first season.
But “Off the Main Road,’’ starring Kyra Sedgwick and directed by Evan Cabnet, too often comes across like an especially lurid episode of “Peyton Place,’’ the soap opera that began churning up the primetime suds in the mid-1960s, around the time Inge is believed to have written this overheated drama.
If David Cromer’s recent Huntington Theatre Company production of “Come Back, Little Sheba’’ showcased Inge’s strengths, “Off the Main Road’’ abounds in reminders of the playwright’s weaknesses: his tendency toward exposition-heavy dialogue, melodramatic excess (a shortcoming also of his screenplay for “Splendor in the Grass’’), and dramatic shortcuts. To be fair, there are flashes of Inge’s empathy, humor, and psychological insight in “Off the Main Road.’’ The play also addresses a frequent Inge theme — the tidal pull of desire — albeit with less skill than his better plays.
Sedgwick has demonstrated a capacity for subtle expressivity throughout her career, including her Emmy-winning stint on TNT’s “The Closer.’’ She’s too good an actress not to have her moments in “Off the Main Road.’’ But her overall efforts at portraiture are undermined by the broadly written nature of her role as Faye Garrit, an affluent woman who flees her abusive husband and takes up residence in a lakeside cottage outside St. Louis.
When we first see Faye, she’s wearing a fur coat and sunglasses and projecting an air of extreme nervousness. Once she removes the sunglasses, it’s apparent why: Faye has a black eye, given to her by Manny (Jeremy Davidson), the volatile ex-baseball player to whom she is married. She has been accompanied to the cottage by Julia, her 17-year-old daughter from a previous husband. Mary Wiseman portrays Julia with a wry self-awareness that results in the production’s most appealing performance.
Faye insists to Julia that she will never go back to the abusive Manny. So what’s the next step for a woman who now, at middle age, has to figure out who she is and build a new life for herself outside of marriage?
Inge doesn’t show much interest in answering that question in any depth. Instead, he enmeshes Faye in not-terribly-scintillating arguments with her overbearing mother, played by Estelle Parsons, and a lengthy conversation with Faye’s closeted gay friend, Jimmy (Howard W. Overshown) that partly focuses on the influence of Jimmy’s own mother. Meanwhile, Julia embarks on a romance with Victor (Daniel Sharman, very good), a college student; the tenderness of the love affair between these two young people contrasts sharply with the other relationships in “Off the Main Road.’’
But the production runs aground at the end of Act 1, when Inge ask us to believe that Faye would respond with ardor to the sexual coercion of a cab driver named Gino, played by Aaron Costa Ganis. It’s a cringe-inducing scene, from start — when Gino forces his way into the cottage despite Faye’s protests (he has, he claims, an ability to spot a “look of loneliness . . . and want . . . and crazy desires’’ in a woman’s eyes) — to finish, when Faye, in Gino’s arms, actually says, “What rapture!’’
A chunk of Act 2 is devoted to the consequences of that encounter, including an impressively staged burst of violence (the fight director is Thomas Schall). Eventually, Faye makes a decision about the direction of her life that is awfully hard to stomach. This is not a case of seeing domestic violence and gender roles through a present-day lens; it’s that Faye’s choices aren’t persuasive even in the social context established in this play.
The bottom line: “Off the Main Road’’ is useful in terms of telling the story of Inge’s career more fully, but it’s hard to imagine it will amount to much more than a footnote to that career.
OFF THE MAIN ROAD
Play by William Inge
Directed by: Evan Cabnet. Set, Takeshi Kata. Costumes, Paloma Young. Lights, Ben Stanton. Sound, Ben Truppin-Brown.
At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through July 19. 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.