Harrison, TX Review: Playwright Horton Foote’s Return
Those of us smitten two years ago by “The Orphan’s Home Cycle,” the Signature Theater Company’s epic production of nine of Horton Foote’s plays taking place in a small Texas town he called Harrison, cannot help but be drawn to “Harrison, TX” at Primary Stages, an evening of three more plays by Foote.
If not the matchless event of the Signature series, “Harrison, TX” is unquestionably worthwhile – well-staged, beautifully acted, full of humor and feeling.
How could it not be? The cast includes Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, who was so wonderful in the Signature cycle, and Jayne Houdyshell, who is so wonderful in everything. The director of “Harrison, TX” is Pam MacKinnon, who did such a great job with “Clybourne Park,” a play whose sensibility offers a sharp and intriguing contrast to the work of Horton Foote.
Foote saw his theatrical career revive and reputation soar late in life, when “A Young Man From Atlanta” transferred to Broadway in 1997 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (He died three years ago, nine months before Signature’s mounting of his nine Orphan plays, 10 days short of his 93rd birthday.) He is still best known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies,” and for the play “The Trip To Bountiful,” which was also made into a film. Typically, his characters soldier on through their sorrows without much fuss, just as the playwright depicts their everyday struggles with an engaging (and deceptive) simplicity.
The nine plays of “The Orphans Home Cycle” were all of a piece, following 28 years in the life of one man and his extended family. By contrast, there is no obvious connection among the three plays of “Harrison,TX” other than the locale, which is also where the Signature plays take place (a fictional stand-in for the small town of Wharton where Foote grew up.)
In the most entertaining of the three plays, “Blind Date,” Hallie Foote plays Delores, a well-meaning aunt who arranges for a blind date for her awkward niece Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green) with the son of a friend, Felix (Evan Jonigkeit), even though Sarah Nancy wants nothing more than to listen to Rudy Vallee on the radio (It is 1928). Rounding out the cast is Devon Abner as Delores’ husband, who is bemused by the date and simply wants his wife to feed him. If the tale is ultimately predictable, it is a delight to get there, thanks to the pitch-perfect, hilarious performances: Andrea Lynn Green is so convincing as the stubbornly ungracious young woman that it is a surprise to see her playing a graceful and attractive character in one of the later plays of the evening. Evan Jonigkeit, who played the over-the-top addict in “High” is here a well-dressed, polite and overeager young man trying to do the right thing, but not quite knowing what that is. Hallie Foote is a master at playing a woman whose upbringing brings courteous restraint to her exasperation.
“The One-Armed Man” reminds us of the dark side of Foote’s writing, his willingness to confront the ugliness of small-town life. What happens is both surreal and chilling. A man who has lost his arm in a cotton gin (Alexander Cendese) calls on the mill’s self-satisfied owner (Jeremy Bobb) with a demand: He wants his arm back.
“The Midnight Caller,” the most complex of the plays, takes place in a boarding house in 1952. Each of the boarders is lonely in her own way (they are all women) when two more boarders are introduced, one of them an attractive man, the other a woman with a past. Helen Crews was in love with Harry Weems, got him to stop drinking. But their mothers broke it up, and now Harry has gone back to drinking. He starts showing up every midnight calling Helen’s name.
Stand-outs here include Mary Bacon as a hypersensitive and judgmental unmarried stenographer, Houdyshell as a lonely unmarried old teacher given to staring out the window. This is the only one of Horton Foote’s plays that feels dated to me in the attitudes not just of the characters but of the playwright.
Horton Foote, as I wrote in my review of the first three plays of the Orphan’s Home Cycle, is rarely mentioned in the average theatergoer’s list of great American playwrights, certainly never in the same breath as that other scion of the South, Tennessee Williams. My hope is that the three plays of “Harrison, TX” will bring him closer to getting on that list. They won’t do it alone, but they don’t have to. Foote wrote some 50 plays.
Three plays by Horton Foote
Primary Statges at 59E59 Theaters
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Scenic design by Marion Williams, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, and original music and sound design by Broken Chord.
Cast: Devon Abner, Mary Bacon, Jeremy Bobb, Alexander Cendese, Hallie Foote, Andrea Lynn Green, Jayne Houdyshell, Evan Jonigkeit, Jenny Dare Paulin
“Harrison, TX” is scheduled to run through September 15, 2012
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