The Kansas City Actors Theatre looks into the American psyche

The Kansas City Actors Theatre pretty much has the market cornered on experience. Its list of founders and its core artistic company include some of the city’s most celebrated players. But they haven’t let it go to their heads.

“We have an unusual model,” says Audrey Porsche, the group’s development and marketing director. “There is no artistic director. It’s an ensemble instead of an individual that makes the decisions.”

As part of that autonomous hive mind, KCAT decides on a theme for each of its summer seasons. In 2011, it was “A Summer of Mystery,” featuring Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. Light stuff compared with 2008’s “Oppression and the Human Spirit.”

“That was a heavy year,” Porsche recalls.

In 2013, the company is set to perform a pair of Pulitzer Prize winners for what it has labeled “A Classic American Summer.” That means Picnic, by William Inge, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. (So this is going to be a heavy year, too.)

“Nobody ever does his stuff here,” John Rensenhouse says of O’Neill. The KC native, who joined KCAT in 2007, is at the helm of O’Neill’s masterwork. “I think the tension, drama and angst of Long Day’s Journey Into Night all come from the heart of being a family — something everyone can always relate to,” he says. “This show perhaps defines the concept of dysfunction long before the term was ever used to describe certain families.”

Unlike other families, though, the one in O’Neill’s autobiographical play can occasionally have its story tuned up a bit. “I’m cutting the sucker down from an overbearing four hours to a more manageable two and a half,” Rensenhouse says.

Picnic, directed by Mark Robbins, a KCAT founder, skews more steamy than somber. It’s a summer play, and this 2013 staging commemorates Kansas-born Inge’s centenary.

“There are still large swaths of America that are rural, small-town locations where the modes of life haven’t changed much at all,” Robbins says. Picnic is loosely based on the women Inge grew up around in his mother’s Kansas boardinghouse — women who were learning to live with the memory of their compromised dreams.

“We all strive for something greater in our lives, and Inge has given this theme a lovely rendering in this romantic story of life in a small Kansas town and the drifter who ignites the passion there,” Rensenhouse says. “Picnic seemed the perfect companion [to Journey] — a truly American piece, lighter in tone, full of romance and born out of our hometown region.”

Categories: A&E, Stage