By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 22, 2009 at 5:20 AM

No one writes three-act plays in the digital age. Take a look at the current seasons being produced by some Milwaukee theater companies, and you could get the impression that two act plays are becoming extinct. Our attention spans are shorter in the 21st century, and theater is often reduced now to a single sprint of 90 minutes or less.

If Act 3 of William Inge's 1953 drama "Picnic" were eliminated, we would lose the meat of a play that is engaging but languid through two acts. In the case of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production of "Picnic" that opened last weekend, we would be denied a viscerally chilling scene between actors Tami Workentin and Bill Watson, who provide the moment that reveals why the play set in small town Kansas won the Pulitzer Prize. Souls hollowed out by quiet desperation and despair are a universal affliction.

"Picnic" contains the threads of several familiar dramatic themes. The arrival of a studly young drifter named Hal Carter quickens the pulse of two generations of women in the rural town. His mysterious background gradually reveals him to be a sensitive fellow attempting to escape a troubled past.

Class is a factor, as the common folk uneasily mingle with the country club crowd. Two teenage sisters are jealous of each other because one is pretty and not too bright, the other is a smart and clever tomboy. And we catch shades of Chekhov here, with perpetual yearning in an isolated place where little happens.

This is not an easy play to successfully stage in 2009. It can feel dated and irrelevant. We always know where the plot is going.

Finding the precisely right tone and inhabiting the characters with specific, vivid and compelling performances are essential to reaping "Picnic's" payoff. Inge may have populated his drama with types, but the show's cast must distill them into real, nuanced people.

The Chamber Theatre staging, directed by C. Michael Wright, accomplishes that in spades. The production is a joint effort with the theater department at UWM's Peck School of the Arts. Professional actors, including three from the UWM faculty, blend nicely with four undergraduates.

Workentin portrays an old maid school teacher renting a room in the house that is also the home of the adolescent Owens sisters. She gives the woman a bitter edge that effectively sets up her desperate vulnerability early in Act 3. Watson's noncommittal boyfriend, the picture of perplexed affability, complements Workentin's raw anxiety.

Emily Vitrano and April Paul, one of the UWM students, are the other impressive duo in this production. They portray the Owens sisters, and Vitrano plays the boy-magnet sibling, a classic ingenue. The challenge is to make the young dime store clerk more than just a preening pretty face. She must be interesting and vulnerable despite her appearance, and the actress delivers that.

Paul's character undergoes a hesitant transformation from boyish spitfire to attractive young woman, and she nails it with a charmingly genuine awkwardness.

Attention must also be paid to UWM student actor Andrew Edwin Voss, who contributes a believably brooding presence to his beefcake role of the drifter.

"Picnic" continues through Nov. 1.

A "boom" at the Top of the Charts

American Theatre magazine tallies the most popular (by number of productions) plays in regional theater every year, omitting Shakespeare and seasonal shows like "A Christmas Carol."

A play that is not on my radar, "boom," written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, leads the pack this season with nine productions. Next up, with eight apiece, are "Dead Man's Cell Phone" by Sarah Ruhl, "The Seafarer" by Conor McPherson, and "Speech & Debate" by Stephen Karam.

These are followed by "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Around the World in 80 Days," "The Glass Menagerie," "Opus," "Our Town," "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment," "Souvenir," "Yankee Tavern," "Black Pearl Sings!" and "Boeing-Boeing."

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre mounted a production of "Around the World in 80 Days" in August, and the Milwaukee Rep has "Yankee Tavern" and "The Seafarer" opening in, respectively, January and February.

Of those not being done in Milwaukee this season, "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is the show I most want to see. It's a comedy about a woman who takes an insistently ringing cell phone from a corpse and answers the calls meant for the unlucky stiff.

Chicago's "Tonys" Recognize Two with Milwaukee Ties

Chicago's equivalent of the Tonys, the Joseph Jefferson Awards, have been announced, and two people with Milwaukee area ties were winners. Mequon composer Josh Schmidt, who has worked with virtually every major professional theater in Wisconsin, shared the award in the New Musical Adaptation category with Jan Tranen and Austin Pendleton for their collaborative creation of "A Minister's Wife." Schmidt wrote a gorgeous score for the musical adaption of George Bernard Shaw's "Candida."

Actress Liz Baltes, who has worked at the Skylight Opera Theatre and First Stage Children's Theater, won a Jeff for her work in the same show. She actually tied for first place in the Supporting Actress in a Musical classification.

"A Minister's Wife" is likely to have a big future. Here's hoping we see it in Milwaukee next season.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.