The ensemble cast for Idyllwild Arts production of “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” Photo by J.P. Crumrine

This weekend, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” will be the first production of the 2012-13 Idyllwild Arts Theatre season.


The play, by Laura Annawyn Shamas, is an adaptation of a 1967 novel with the same title by Lady Joan Lindsay.

On Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of Australian schoolgirls set out on a picnic to the ancient volcanic monolith formations of Hanging Rock located in the Macedon Ranges of Central Victoria. What was to be a peaceful and joyous outing for the young girls of Appleyard College for Women, turns into a disturbing and intriguing mystery of supernatural proportions, which affects the small town.

The horror of a crime, a conspiracy of secret desires and the irresponsibility of those in charge, all figure into the fascination and intrigue of this unsolved mystery. Lindsay herself kept the mystery alive by refusing to publish the final chapter of her novel until three years after her death in 1984. Perhaps intended to mislead her readers, she never admitted whether the picnic was fact or fiction.

“There are plenty of roles for young girls. And it’s eerie and scary and perfect for Halloween,” Director Howard Shagraw said when asked why he chose this work. “It serves the department well and involves teenage girls at school.”

One thing is true; the story continues to lure readers, moviegoers and storytellers alike. A permanent exhibit has been installed at the base of the rock, and countless tourists visit the fateful sight yearly and a Broadway musical is in the works.

In her own words Lindsay stated “I can’t tell you whether the story is fact or fiction … but a lot of very strange things have happened around the area of Hanging Rock — things that have no logical explanation. Whether [the book] is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves, as the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems to matter.” What is sure to matter is that this mystery continues.

The novel also inspired the 1975 film “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which Peter Weir directed. The success of the film was responsible for a substantial increase in visits to the rock and a renewal of interest in the novel. The mysterious and haunting story has since gained urban legend status and remains a ghost story that will not die.

Local residents Heather Harkness and Heather and Grace Haggard are members of the ensemble cast. The production team includes Zoe Crawford, Michael McDonnell and Will Lovett.

The production plays at 7:30 p.m., on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2 and 3 and at 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 4.