The Belfast Maskers have inaugurated their Festival Stage with a solid rendition of William Inge’s classic “Picnic.” If nice weather holds for the second Thursday through Sunday weekend of its run, Midcoast theatergoers have a rare and welcome opportunity to see a first-rate production of an engaging drama in a congenial outdoor setting. This community theater is about as good as it gets.

The Festival Stage in Steamboat Landing Park is the creation of Binghamton University of New York professor emeritus and theater professional John Bielenberg. A series of hexagonally oriented platforms and risers can be adapted into a variety of configurations having a central focus. For this premiere production, Belfast artist Linden Frederick has skillfully embellished the installation’s uprights and crosspieces to depict two houses facing each other over a common yard. A stylized sun and moon delineate the times of the play’s scenes. A sophisticated sound system provides helpful audio effects, and eager warblers in the row of cedars behind the stage lend a naturalistic touch.

One of the leading American playwrights of the 1950s, Inge captured the essence of small-town life in the Midwest in a string of popular plays. “Picnic,” the Pulitzer Prize winner of 1953, was followed in 1955 by “Bus Stop,” which became a notable television series. Inge’s screenplay for “Splendor in the Grass,” the tale of a young Midwesterner at Yale, garnered an Academy Award in 1961.

The action of “Picnic” centers on the Labor Day festivities in a Kansas farming community. That morning a handsome young man has turned up looking for a school buddy. All too aware of his shortcomings, he nonetheless catches the eye of a local girl who chafes at always being told how pretty she is when she feels her life is empty. The two gravitate to each other, contrary to the aspirations and expectations of everyone around them.

Playing the small-town belle Madge Owens is Elise Morrow-Schap, who is returning for a second summer as a Maskers intern. At once innocent and knowing, impulsive but practical, Morrow-Schap’s Madge offers a refreshing portrayal of what might be a clichéd or labored role. We can’t help but hope for her happiness.

We want the same for her new beau, the drifter Hal Carter, and for some that may come as a surprise. There are good reasons to steer clear of the handsome young braggart. Some reject him as a cad, a ne’er-do-well or worse. But we know he judges himself even more harshly than others do and, as played by Reid W. Connell, another Maskers summer intern, we gladly indulge his charms even as we fret over his tenuous position.

“Picnic” is hardly soap opera, but love — or the lack of it — is the central theme. With the possible exception of Madge’s rambunctious younger sister Millie, played by the delightful Clare Olson, another intern, everyone seems to have a clear notion of what love is and how it plays out. But the relationships we learn of are hardly as hoped for, and the players would sooner pursue their illusions than own up to reality. Art does tend to imitate life.

Flo Owens, earnestly portrayed by Danielle Bannister, can rhapsodize over Madge’s marriage prospects to the well-off young Alan Seymour. Ably played by Nicholas Abounader, a third summer intern, Alan is Hal’s one-time fraternity brother. Flo barely speaks of Mr. Owens or what became of him, although answering Madge’s question how one can truly realize the love one feels, Flo acknowledges — in what is perhaps the play’s most poignant line — “I … I never found out.”

Next-door neighbor Mrs. Potts — the constantly evolving Sonia Vazquez — is the first to take a shine to the young drifter Hal. She offers him breakfast in exchange for some yard work, also generously offering to wash his shirt. We soon learn that she is Mrs. in name only, her marriage having been annulled by her mother as soon as it happened many, many years ago.

The play is based in part on Inge’s recollections of the schoolteachers his mother had as boarders. Even as a boy he was aware of their hopes and disappointments in attracting a man. Taking up that thread in the play are three teachers at the local high school. As Irma Kronkite and Christine Schoenwalder, respectively, Kelly Hewins and Jennifer Lowe present giggly facades that on a rainy day are like to break our hearts.

Real-life high school teacher Chris Goosman gamely portrays Rosemary Sydney, the most determined of these ladies. Not surprisingly, shirtless Hal sparks her interest. When it’s clear she can’t have him, Rosemary turns back to her noncommittal boyfriend — but not before wreaking revenge on Hal. Robin Jones plays shopkeeper boyfriend Howard Bevans with genial fatalism.

Returning guest director Matthew Ames, an assistant professor of theater at Nazareth College in upstate New York, has forged an admirable ensemble of his actors, all of whom seem completely at ease in their roles and with each other. Centered by the new stage area, the actors were easily heard without need of amplification. The dialogue proceeded with steady spirit, and the play’s considerable physicality took place without a hitch. With thanks to Maret Knight and Rebecca Stuart, the many costumes — some players had several changes — lent just the right period flavor. Where props mistress Pat Hustus found a portable vanity set is anyone’s guess.

On the whole, the Maskers’ Festival Stage also made an impressive debut. As with any outdoor performance, evening theatergoers will want to anticipate the occasional mosquito, although bugs were hardly a problem at Friday’s opening performance. A like concern is that temperatures by the water can fall sharply at dusk, so a sweater or jacket is recommended.

“Picnic” continues for a second weekend on the Maskers’ new Festival Stage in Steamboat Landing Park beside the Boathouse. Access is by the Boathouse or, better, at the foot of Miller Street. Folding chairs are provided, and personal lawn chairs can be accommodated. Remaining performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, July 8 through 10; and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 11. Tickets are $15, $10 for teens, and are available at Yo Mamma’s Home, 96 Main St.; or at the park one hour before performances. For more information, call 338-9668.

Frugal Belfast resident William Nelson thanks his stars he qualifies for a senior “Journal” subscription rate.