29 August 2012

The Trip to Harrison

The art of conversation: Sarah Nancy (Green)
and Dolores (Hallie Foote) in Blind Date.

A certain kind of genteel discourse prevalent in the South has over the years proved both a blessing and a curse. For many generations, talking around unpleasant subjects upheld the social order, but it also prevented the solution of longstanding problems seldom if ever addressed. Even today Southerners tend to be great storytellers and conversationalists: they can talk a great deal, but often it’s what goes unsaid that is most important.

The late Horton Foote demonstrated this again and again with a particularly Texan accent in plays for the stage and the screen. Three short pieces now being performed by the Primary Stages troupe at the 59E59 Theaters give New York audiences a wide range of the possibilities of Southern speech — perhaps most notably in The One-Armed Man, the second of the plays, in which conversation breaks down and violence erupts, of a kind virtually unknown elsewhere in Mr. Foote’s multi-voluminous work.

Mr. Foote sets all three plays in Harrison, Texas, the name he gave to the town of Wharton, where he was born and where he set most of his work; “Harrison, TX” is the portmanteau title for this production. Harrison lies even closer spiritually than Wharton lies geographically to Goliad, my mother’s hometown, a phenomenon that helps to account for the degree of kinship I feel with this author — one that my mother felt certain had to be genealogical, as well. (It isn’t, as Mr. Foote himself once confirmed.)

The playbill shows Mr. Foote at his desk.
Blurry photo by WVM. Some day I have got to get a working scanner.

Under Pam McKinnon’s adroit stage direction and together lasting about 90 minutes, the three plays are performed without intermission. The first, Blind Date set in 1928, brilliantly sets up the rest, as Dolores, a middle-aged matron, provides her niece (and, doubtless, much of the audience) a crash course in the kind of genteel conversation I’m talking about. It’s easy to see that Dolores’ sister has fobbed her daughter off on Dolores, having failed to find any eligible prospects for her back home; now Dolores rises to Amanda Wingfield desperation as she strives to make good on one last chance, in the form of a gentleman caller named Felix.

The ensuing scenes make for riotous comedy, of a kind we don’t often see from Mr. Foote; it’s lofted especially high by Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter and always one of his finest interpreters) as Dolores, and by the brilliant Andrea Lynn Green as the stubborn young Sarah Nancy. The girl has no interest whatever in Felix, whom she describes as “looking like a warthog.” In the person of Evan Jonigkeit, he’s quite attractive — albeit very nearly as ill-equipped as Sarah Nancy for courtship rituals. Dolores’ husband, Robert (Devon Abner), interrupts periodically.

Welcome to my parlor: Jonigkeit, Green, and Hallie Foote.

Intriguingly, it’s unclear exactly how old Sarah Nancy is: Green plays her as something of a modern-day teenage slacker, which must make her more immediately recognizable to the New York audience. There’s no mention of her going to college, although we’re told that Dolores went — a rare achievement among Texan women of that generation. But Felix is already selling insurance for a living and considering a change to a second career as a mortician: he’s a grownup, and Sarah Nancy is being groomed as his prospective bride.

There’s an undercurrent of seriousness here: we see that, for all of Dolores’ skill at conversation, her own husband pays scant attention to what she says, and cares less about her ambitions for Sarah Nancy than about the supper Dolores is too busy to prepare. Naturally, no one ever suggests that he make his own supper. Dolores tries to steer Sarah Nancy towards subjects of interest to men in general and to Felix in particular; when she protests, Dolores informs her that “Nobody cares what you’re interested in.” In Harrison society, women’s roles are rigidly circumscribed — as we’ll see again in the final play, The Midnight Caller, set in 1952.

The One-Armed Man: When language fails.
Bobb and Cendese.

The second and shortest of the plays, The One-Armed Man, also set in 1928, introduces us to C.W. Rowe (Jeremy Bobb), manager of a cotton gin, bluntly ignorant of the consequences of his behavior on those around him — beginning with his beleaguered bookkeeper (Abner again, all but unrecognizable). In a nod to contemporary sensibilities, Rowe even cites his membership in a white citizens’ council as an indication of his upstanding position in society. (The New York audience gasped at the mention.) So it’s no surprise that he is so little inclined to help the former employee, McHenry (Alexander Cendese), who lost his arm in a worksite accident.*

Rowe’s offers of charity aren’t enough for McHenry, who demands that Rowe “give me back my arm” — and draws a pistol to make his point. Ever a student of Chekhov, Mr. Foote abides by the Russian rule, and the gun does indeed go off, but not before a storm of increasingly inarticulate “conversation” marked by McHenry’s rage and Rowe’s mounting panic. Even conversation with God — prayer, which is for a small-town Texan perhaps the most familiarly ingrained language — fails.

Employee relations: Bobb and Abner.

At a talkback with the cast following the Wednesday matinée, several audience members pronounced themselves mystified by The One-Armed Man and quizzed Cendese in particular about his character’s purpose. Hallie Foote observed that the play examines class distinctions, and it does, but I wonder whether Mr. Foote’s intent was even more specifically political — writing as he was of a state where “business-friendly” policies mean that, to this day, workmen’s compensation is virtually nonexistent. (Gail Collins underscored that point in her recent book, As Texas Goes.)

An outstanding candidate for the next Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, Cendese is arguably too handsome to play McHenry, but he’s exactly right as Harvey Weems, the title character of The Midnight Caller: the sort of doomed beauty found in so many stories of small towns in the South. Here, Harvey is a young man of good family whose love for Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin) can’t surmount the opposition of both their families and his budding alcoholism. After four years of “trying,” Helen is ready to move on, but Harry haunts her, standing outside the boarding house where she lives and calling out her name — much to the consternation of the other ladies who live there.

The ladies of the boarding house: Green, Houdyshell, Bacon.

They’re in a tizzy already because a gentleman boarder (Bobb again, infinitely more sympathetic) has moved in; now they’re fearful for their reputations, even as they hope he’ll carry them away. Here Mr. Foote illustrates the effects of one more kind of conversation — namely, gossip — on a community. The ladies tell tales of Helen’s past, and they worry that soon enough, other ladies will talk about them the same way.

None worries more than Alma Jean Jordan (the sublime Mary Bacon), a single working woman as thin-skinned as she is narrow-minded. Trying to appease her are the owner of the boarding house (Hallie Foote again) and two other unmarried boarders, young “Cutie” Spencer (Green again) and a schoolteacher, Miss Rowena Douglas (richly incarnated by Jane Houdyshell, so memorable from last year’s revival of Sondheim’s Follies).

Midnight Caller: Houdyshell and Bobb.

Throughout the production, I enjoyed McKinnon’s astute appreciation for even the smallest details — precisely what one needs from any director in Mr. Foote’s work — her embrace of both the playwright’s humor and his darker themes. She elicits an ease among the actors that really does make them feel they’ve known one another forever. McKinnon makes excellent use of Marion Williams’ set design, in which simple but evocatively decorated walls and a staircase shift to create three different spaces, with a fourth (Helen’s room in the boarding house) convincingly established just by a change in Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design.

Harrison, TX provides first-time visitors with an excellent overview of Mr. Foote’s work, in circumstances that are almost ideal. For those of us who know his work already, a little or a lot, the production offers substantial rewards, as well: the master flexing his muscles, trying a few things he hasn’t tried, while remaining entirely true to himself. In short, I recommend this production to anyone seeking a better understanding of this authentic titan of the American theater.

Harrison, TX runs through 15 September and is just one of several offerings dedicated to Mr. Foote at Primary Stages this season. For more information and tickets, click here.

NOTE: My portrait of Horton Foote appears here. The little essay I wrote on the occasion of his passing appears here.

No comments: