Theatre in Review: Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote (Primary Stages/59E59)
Wharton, Texas is loaded with natural resources, having produced cotton, sugar cane, oil, and the plays of Horton Foote. Under the name of Harrison, this town of 9,200 has been the setting for so many works by one of our most prolific and accomplished playwrights. Two seasons ago, we got The Orphan's Home Cycle, a family saga, set mostly in Harrison, that required nine plays spread over three evenings; in its historical sweep and teeming cast of characters, it was a work of almost Tolstoyan scope. Now we're getting Harrison, TX, a trio of dramatic cameos that prove Foote was, in the words of Saul Bellow, "a first-class noticer." Most of us would look at Wharton and see a one-horse town, a place devoid of interest. To Foote's eyes, it was an endless fund of stories.
The one-act form is not a natural for Foote, a dramatist whose best works earn their power through the patient accrual of small, but telling, details. If Harrison, TX cannot compare to the stunning achievement of The Orphan's Home Cycle, it also comes off as slight even in comparison to such average-length works as The Trip to Bountiful, Dividing the Estate, or The Young Man from Atlanta. On their own terms, however these are funny, flavorful, even harrowing pieces, accomplished casuals from a master of the trade. If you love Foote's plays, you won't want to miss them. If you don't know him, they provide a fine introduction to his singular gifts.
The director, Pam McKinnon, whose knack for casting and eye for the all-revealing dramatic detail added so much to Clybourne Park, has drawn heavily from what you might call the Horton Foote Stock Company, the pool of actors who, time and again, have enlivened his works. The first piece, "Blind Date," one of two set in 1928, provides a lively showcase for the playwright's daughter, Hallie Foote. An unbeatable interpreter of his characters, she is delightful as Dolores, a matron handed the unenviable task of turning her niece, Sarah Nancy, into a social success. Fat chance: The young lady in question faces the world with her eyes narrowed, her lips curled, and a scalding remark always on the tip of her tongue. Dolores perseveres, coaching this sullen creature in the art of charming boys with the help of a list of surefire conversation starters. (Among them are "Do you think we've had enough rain for the cotton yet?" or "What is the best car on the market today, do you think?") Despite her unstinting efforts, Sarah Nancy won't budge, and it's delightful to watch Dolores' composure unravel even as she recalls her own success as a coquette. ("I was not born a conversationalist, you know," she says, before heading into an account of how she landed on the "beauty page" of two different college yearbooks.) Andrea Lynn Green makes an amusingly unlikely Galatea as Sarah Nancy, and there are sterling contributions from Devon Abner as Dolores' skeptical husband and Evan Jonigkeit as the awkward young man who may just be the suitor of Sarah Nancy's dreams.
The second piece, "The One-Armed Man," marks a startling change in tone. Also set in 1928, it features Jeremy Bobb as C.W. Rowe, a callous cotton merchant who is tired of receiving visits from McHenry, a former employee who lost an arm in a job-related accident. Apparently deranged by this tragedy, McHenry repeatedly visits his former boss, asking for his arm back; usually, he leaves with a five-dollar bill, but this time, this offering will not do. I don't want to say more except to note that "The One-Armed Man" quickly becomes a quiet study in terror, surely the only drama by Foote that has ever had me on the edge of my seat. Alexander Cendese is thoroughly chilling as McHenry, his flat affect only adding to his sense of menace.
Cendese returns as another lost soul in The Midnight Caller, the longest and most substantial piece of the three. A television play originally broadcast in 1952, it is set in a boardinghouse entirely populated by women. Secretaries and schoolteachers, their dull routine -- days of work followed by evenings of magazines, crossword puzzles, and trips to the movies -- is upset by the arrival of two new residents: a recently divorced and easy-on-the-eyes young man, Ralph Johnston, and Helen Crews, a local girl, whose life has been upset by scandal. (A romance on the marriage track was destroyed by maternal interference; the young man has taken to drowning his sorrows, and each night he stands outside Helen's home, howling her name.)
It's not too hard to see where The Midnight Caller is heading, but the trip is made enjoyable by the finely drawn characterizations. The standouts here are Mary Bacon as a spinster who hides her longings behind a mask of smug self-satisfaction, and Jayne Houdyshell as the senior member of the household, who has distilled some hard-won wisdom from a lifetime of disappointment. Hallie Foote is also fine as the no-nonsense lady of the house. Jenny Dare Paulin brings a palpable sadness to the role of Helen. (Bobb, who returns as Ralph, is given surprisingly little to say or do. One imagines that, in the television version, he was left out of most of the close-ups.)
Marion Williams' set design, a towering three-sided surround of floral wallpaper, adapts easily to the needs of all three plays, thanks to a staircase that can be moved around and a handful of evocative period furnishings. Kaye Voyce's costumes feel like authentic clothing from each of the plays' periods. The sensitive lighting by Tyler Micoleau and sound and music by Broken Chord are also plus factors.
Each of the plays in Harrison, TX is very different in tone from the others, and yet they are linked by one of the author's most constant preoccupations, namely the corrosive loneliness that lurks behind his characters' good manners and conventional piety. Calvinists at heart, they believe in hard work and the exercise of virtue, and yet they live a step or two away from disaster; heartbreak and solitude are their constant companions. In many ways, Foote's works are studies in perseverance and the bravery it requires. You'll find that in these plays, too, brought to life by a marvelously sympathetic team of artists.--David Barbour