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Theatre in Review: The Traveling Lady (Cherry Lane Theatre)/The Aran Islands (Irish Rep Theatre)

Top: Karen Ziemba, Angelina Fiordellisi. Bottoms: Brenan Conroy. Photos: Carol Rosegg

Horton Foote never let a piece of material go to waste. Consider The Traveling Lady, currently receiving a genial, if undistinguished, production at the Cherry Lane. A quick flop on Broadway in 1954 with Kim Stanley as the put-upon title character, it was seen twice on television, in 1957 and '58, again with Stanley. In 1965, Foote adapted it into the film Baby the Rain Must Fall, starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick. In the early 2000s, his new, revised version for the stage was seen at Ensemble Studio Theatre; this, I assume is the script used at the Cherry Lane.

Did Foote work over this particular piece of material one time too many? Hard to say, but at least in Austin Pendleton's production, The Traveling Lady emerges as a distinctly minor offering in his rich body of work. The difficulty seems to be Georgette Thomas, the traveling lady of the title, who arrives in Harrison, Texas -- arguably the center of the Horton Foote universe -- one hot day in 1950. Mysteriously, she has come to meet her husband, yet, she admits, she doesn't know when he will arrive. When asked where he is, she replies, "I'm not at liberty to say."

This conversational dodge is doomed; in the gossipy universe of Harrison, secrets are extracted from the innocent with surgical precision. Almost instantly, Georgette reveals that her husband, Henry, is due to be released from prison, although she is remarkably vague about the details. This is bombshell news among the locals, as Henry is well known in Harrison, his life having been shaped by two strong-willed older women: the recently deceased Kate Dawson, whose brand of tough love involved physical abuse, and Mrs. Tillman, a well-off matron and local pillar of virtue who has dedicated herself to Henry's rehabilitation.

There are many more surprises in store for Georgette --none of them pleasant-- and it's a pity that one doesn't feel more for her. She is a classic Foote survivor -- cut off from a father who doesn't approve of her marriage, struggling to make ends meet, and traveling toward a highly uncertain future, accompanied only by her little daughter, Margaret Rose. Somehow, though, her sorrows don't register as strongly as they should. The trouble, I think, begins with Jean Lichty, who plays Georgette. Her brave smile and gallantry in the face of terrible reverses should prove heartbreaking -- but, too much of the time, she appears to be skating on her character's surface. She has her moments: When finally faced with her erring spouse, she invests three little words ("Henry. What happened?") with a world of woe. Yet, too much of the time, she hits the correct notes without making the required music.

It's also true that Georgette is overshadowed -- in her own play - by a typically colorful cast of Foote supporting characters, their magpie ways effortlessly stealing the limelight. They include Lynn Cohen as a crone with no conversational filter ("I miss going to funerals more than anything else in the world."); Karen Ziemba as her daughter, who keeps tabs on everyone's comings and goings ("I only counted twenty-four at the funeral today."); George Morfogen as an elderly jurist who sees through Georgette's evasions; and Jill Tanner as Mrs. Tillman, whose charity comes with a considerable chill. ("Well, we all know where whiskey leads," she says, calling up a world of debasement with a single disapproving look.) Special mention goes to Angelina Fiordellisi as a sympathetic spinster who can see where Georgette is headed. ("What always becomes of women like that? I've seen her kind so many times in town on Saturdays coming in to buy what they can with what they have left over from their husband's drinking.") PJ Sosko makes the most of his few appearances as Henry. As Slim, a widower with a secret who falls precipitously for Georgette, Larry Bull does solid work, but very few sparks are struck between him and Lichty.

Harry Feiner's set, depicting a sun porch, is a tad confusing; I kept wondering why so many pieces of furniture -- especially lamps -- were placed out of doors; also, for some reason, Pendleton has directed most of the characters to enter via the theatre's center aisle, a decision that needlessly adds time to the proceedings. Feiner's lighting, however, effectively creates a number of time-of-day looks. Theresa Squire's costumes accurately feature the loose gingham dresses favored by the ladies; Georgette's rather dressier traveling outfit is also nicely done. Ryan Rumery's sound design is solid, but his original music sounds too much like country music of another, later, era.

There is much to enjoy here, most notably the way that the playwright conjures an entire universe of offstage characters with complicated histories, but this is one of his weaker pieces, and one misses the perceptive touches that the director Michael Wilson brings to the Foote canon. Completists won't want to miss The Traveling Lady; others can wait for a better production someday soon.

On the other hand, at least The Traveling Lady is a drama. The Aran Islands, now at the Irish Rep, is more a travelogue with a fancy literary pedigree. In 1897, the playwright John Millington Synge, in his twenties and already suffering from Hodgkin's disease, spent a summer in the Aran Islands, located off the western coast of Ireland. He returned for five more times, out of which came a book that examines the local peasantry, their folkways, and their religion. Elegantly written, it's a tall order for adaptation to the stage. Nevertheless, Joe O'Byrne has taken on the task, also directing this production, which stars Brendan Conroy; for all their effort, however, the result is pretty static.

To be sure, every page of the text has at least one striking observation: "Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a wild torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities in the rock or passed between a few small fields." It's not just the beautifully chosen words; the very rhythm of the sentence contains in itself the rolling rhythms of nature at work. Describing a cottage where he is staying, he writes, "The red dresses of the women who cluster round the fire on their stools give a glow of almost Eastern richness, and the walls have been toned by the turf-smoke to a soft brown that blends with the grey earth-color of the floor. Many sorts of fishing-tackle, and the nets and oil-skins of the men, are hung upon the walls or among the open rafters; and right overhead, under the thatch, there is a whole cowskin from which they make pampooties [shoes]." If these words don't conjure the interior, your imagination is blind.

Many lovers of Irish literature will be drawn to the Irish Rep for the opportunity to experience his lesser-known prose work of a major playwright, but, to me, passages like the above are best enjoyed in the privacy of the reading room. (In my experience, the one case of a prose piece being successfully adapted into a solo show was Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, but that was a closely argued essay that created its own sense of drama.) The Aran Islands is filled with tales -- including a bizarre folk narrative that contains plot elements seemingly borrowed from Cymbeline and The Merchant of Venice -- but they don't compensate for the lack of an overall dramatic thrust. It might help if Conroy took a more dynamic approach to the text, but in general his intonation is slow and heavy, determined to treat each word as priceless. The result is lulling rather the captivating.

Margaret Nolan has designed a rather unattractive set dominated by carefully draped pieces of distressed fabric, a rather abstract look that perhaps is meant to conjure fishermen's nets. O'Byrne's lighting makes some interesting use of saturated colors but, in the main, is awfully dim. The Aran Islands may be a canny piece of programming for Irish Rep subscribers -- most of whom, it must be said, greeted the production with delight -- but there's a musty air hanging over it. Go upstairs and catch the invigorating Woody Sez instead. --David Barbour


(23 June 2017)

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