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Theatre in Review: The Roads to Home (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Matt Sullivan, Devon Abner, Dan Bittner, and Rebecca Brooksher

Sometimes I think we have it all wrong when we call Horton Foote a playwright; really, he's a composer, wringing music both merry and melancholy from the everyday conversation of his characters, most of them residents of the fictional town of Harrison, Texas. Foote's people rarely say anything remarkable, but behind their words is a universe of feelings, most of them no less deeply felt for remaining unspoken. They are largely members of the middle class, and their lives are furnished for utility rather than beauty. The men work long hours at dull industrial jobs, then come home and fall asleep while reading the newspaper. The women keep their homes spotless and gossip with the neighbors. Children are rarely in evidence. Their routines are broken only by the odd family visit or trip to "the picture show," the latter largely a pursuit of the ladies, who get a little teary over the latest romance. Religion provides a certain lukewarm comfort, unless someone has had a falling-out with the minister and hurt feelings keep him or her away from services. Everything about them is plain, workaday, sensible -- except that Foote's radar ear picks up the little discordant notes that reveal who they really are. Underneath is a pervasive sadness; heartbreak, even insanity, is never far away.

Indeed, The Roads to Home couldn't be a more ironic title, for everyone in the play seems to be living in one form of exile or another; Harrison looms large -- and not always happily -- in most of their memories. The first scene, "A Nightingale," is equally amusing and unsettling. We are in the kitchen of Mabel Votaugh, a middle-aged native of Harrison, now living in Houston with her husband, Jack. (The time is 1924.) Mabel and her neighbor, Vonnie Hayhurst, love a good gossip, and, in the hands of Hallie Foote, with her piercing gaze and a voice like birdsong when the birds are feeling especially cranky, and Harriet Harris, her beatific smile belied by a guttural drawl that hints at a knowledge of facts no lady should discuss, their back-and-forth has a magpie vitality that is an endless source of amusement.

As Mabel, Foote -- an unparalleled interpreter of her father's works -- can turn a long monologue about an unfortunate family from Harrison into a compelling saga. ("Oh well," she says. "She was a Yankee, you see, and when they first moved to Harrison when she was a bride, they were very coolly received..." -- thus beginning a narrative that ends in murder and insanity. Then, without missing a beat, she asks Vonnie, "How was your trip?") Harris' Vonnie is all company manners, unless the subject is the way Catholics pray, in which case her face curls up in distaste and a snarl rattles around in her throat. Seizing the opportunity, she spreads a tale of scandal about adultery in her Louisiana hometown, offering every detail with a mixture of high dudgeon and utter relish.

The ladies are extremely disconcerted to be visited by Annie Gayle Long, a tragic, broken young woman from Harrison, now living in Houston with her husband. Annie's father, a banker, was murdered by an old friend, on whom he was forced to foreclose, and she hasn't been right since. She has taken to visiting Mabel daily -- that is, when she isn't endlessly riding streetcars; she spends her visits looking at photos of her children (whom she doesn't recognize), reminiscing endlessly about her father's death, and peddling outright fantasies -- for example, that her husband is studying for the priesthood. Every so often, she lifts her arm and, firing an imaginary gun, shouts, "Pow! Pow! Pow!" The sight of a supremely flustered Vonnie following up one of these moments with small talk ("It's been a lovely spring, hasn't it?") is delectable. But clearly, Annie has a terrible case of psychological and spiritual dislocation, and it's hard to feel hopeful for her. Rebecca Brooksher finds the melody in Annie's madness -- her weird inattention to others, the uninflected voice with which she recalls family tragedies, and the sudden little bouts of panic that overtake her.

The second scene, "The Dearest of Friends," is funny, even farcical, at least at first. We learn that Vonnie has cut short a lengthy stay with her sister in their Louisiana hometown to rescue her marriage from the clutches of a designing woman. As she recounts, a recent visit to Harrison -- after listening to Mabel and Annie, she wanted to see what all the fuss was about -- has led to disaster; Vonnie's husband, Eddie, was charmed by a lady he met on the train and has taken up with her on the sly. Vonnie details the collapse of her marriage on that fateful day, her tale of woe interrupted by a stray comment that they had lunch in the local hotel. Even here, in the midst of marital disaster, quotidian concerns intrude. Mabel, who can't contain herself, asks, "What did you have to eat?" Vonnie notes, "I had fried chicken and Eddie had roast chicken." "Isn't the food good?" asks Mabel. "Delicious," agrees Vonnie.

The two ladies work themselves up into a fine fury, repeatedly calling the offending other woman on the phone and dragging the half-awake Jack into the action. Vonnie, speaking with the authority of the wounded, pronounces, "You'd better watch out riding on trains with your husband. You never know who your husband will meet." Mabel, disgusted, snaps, "My husband won't meet anyone because he's a stick." Suddenly, it becomes apparent that perhaps Mabel envies Vonnie's starring role in her own tragedy. The atmosphere shifts drastically, however, when Eddie enters, a figure brought low by misery and longing; we also see how terrified Vonnie and Mabel are by this break in the social contract. If they can be cast off by their husbands, where in the world can they go?

The final scene, "Spring Dance," brings us back to Annie, now living in the state asylum in Austin. She and her fellow inmates are dolled up in tuxedos and gowns for the title event, and some of them, especially Annie, seem to be in full control of their faculties. But as their conversation unfolds, a free-floating confusion sets in -- none of them seems to really know what year it is, when they last went home, or if they are going home at all. In a moment of real lucidity, Annie is forced to face a bitter truth that leaves one wondering if she will ever see Houston again.

These delicate materials are handled with such sensitivity and perception by Michael Wilson, the leading director of Foote's plays, that I dearly wish he had found a way to eliminate the intermission that separates the second and third scenes. In this production, the break is necessary to swap out the turntable set depicting the Votaughs' kitchen and living room for the asylum garden outside the room where the spring dance is taking place. But the last scene is a coda, really, a kind of dying fall, and rather brief; the insertion of an intermission threatens to shatter the carefully wrought atmosphere that Wilson and company has so deftly established.

In other respects, the production is beautifully judged, including David C. Woolard's period-accurate costumes (making a nice contrast between Annie's visiting outfit and the ample day dresses favored by Mabel and Vonnie); David Lander's lighting, which adds to the melancholy undertone; and John Gromada's original music and sound, especially the rattle of a passing streetcar and the lilting melodies of a tea dance orchestra heard from offstage. There are also fine performances from Devon Abner,as both the exhausted, fed-up Jack and a guest at the dance who can't stop oversharing; Matt Sullivan as the liveliest, chattiest guest at the dance, as long as he doesn't "get upset," and Dan Bittner as Annie's husband, whose patience has, at long last come to an end.

The Roads to Home, first staged in 1992, is a minor work, a chamber piece in three movements, but it is no less resonant for all of that. Each scene is filled with Foote's acute understanding of these people; in his hands, the deeply ordinary seems extraordinary. And when his characters talk -- oh, the music they make! -- David Barbour

(5 October 2016)

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