Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote" - A Bountiful Journey Indeed

By Judd Hollander
Photos by James Leynse

Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters presents three one-acts by the late Horton Foote which run the gamut from the comic to the serious to the guardedly hopeful and the ultimately resigned. These works, appearing under the umbrella title of Harrison, Tx and all set in that location, offer an intriguing look at life in small-town America where everyone knows your name, as well as your business.

First up is Blind Date, the funniest of the bunch, and set in 1928 where Dolores (Hallie Foote) is desperately trying to arrange a date for her visiting niece Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green). Sarah Nancy being a plain, no-nonsense girl who would rather listen to Rudy Vallee on the radio than make any kind of small talk with a possible beau. Refusing to be dissuaded in her mission, or deal with the needs of her husband Robert (Devon Abner) - Robert being more interested in what's for dinner than Sarah Nancy's love life - Dolores valiantly tries to teach her niece some of the etiquette necessary when meeting a boy for the first time. I.E., be polite, compliment him, talk about the weather, ask him simple questions and never, ever disagree with him. At least not on the first date.

However Sarah Nancy, whose appearance and attitude suggests someone walking the last mile on death row, will have none of this, leading to some rather awkward pauses between her and Felix (Evan Jonigkeit), her perspective date for the evening, while Dolores desperately tries to keep the conversation on a light and happy track. The play nicely recreates one of those uncomfortable evenings just about everyone has been through from time to time, as well as Dolores' desperation to get her niece married off so the younger girl will not wind up an old maid. Though of course, once the ring is on your finger, then you can start to rule the roost, as evidenced by the conversations and retorts between Dolores and Robert.

The entire cast is quite good. Abner does a nice turn as the alternately cranky and bemused Robert. Green is a lot of fun as Sarah Nancy, a girl who just wants to be left alone, at least initially; and Foote nicely projects the feeling of the era depicted as a wannabe matchmaker, seeing it as her duty to save Sarah Nancy from the "evils" of spinsterhood. The dialogue is nicely realistic and the direction by Pam Mackinnon is even handed, helping to bring forth actions from the characters that seem completely relaxed and natural in every way, rather than forced or tired sounding.

Things take a much darker turn in The One-Armed Man. This story is also set in 1928, where C.W. Rowe (Jeremy Bobb), the manager at a cotton gin, meets with McHenry (Alexander Cendese), a young man who lost his arm in a machinery accident on the premises. McHenry now wants C.W. to return the arm, a physical impossibility, leading to a confrontation between the philosophical C.W. and the angry McHenry.

The lynchpin of the story is C.W., a seemingly benign fellow who enjoy placing his points of view and values on others, whether they want to hear them or not; and always pointing out how, with a little care and common sense, everyone can live happily and profitably. A situation explored when C.W. dresses down his bookkeeper Pinky (Devon Abner) on the state of the latter's finances. Though C.W. soon finds out that sometimes all the words in the world won't help a situation, such as when McHenry demands retribution for his loss. Showing the limits people will go to get what they want, or to simply stay alive, The One-Armed Man is short, striking, and ultimately chilling to watch. The play is very nicely acted by Bobb, Abner and Cendese, and tightly directed by MacKinnon.

Things wind up with The Midnight Caller, set in a 1952 boarding house populated mostly by women. These folks include Rowena Douglas (Jayne Houdyshell), an elderly schoolteacher and a bit of a dreamer; "Cutie" Spencer (Andrea Lynn Green), a young career girl; and Alma Jean Jordan (Mary Bacon), a noisy sort who falls between Rowena and Alma age-wise, and who is more concerned with social propriety than about people in general. Alma Jean is also shocked by two new arrivals at the boarding house. Ralph Johnston (Jeremy Bobb), a divorced man; and Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin), a woman trying to rebuild her life in the wake of a scandal involving her former fiancée. Said person being Harvey Weems (Alexander Cendese), a man who gets drunk most nights and ends up crying for his ex-love. Helen and Harvey had planned to be married, but were eventually pulled apart by Harvey's drinking habits, and by the machinations of their respective mothers, both women being dead set against the match.

The Midnight Caller is the most multi-layered play of the three, offering a detailed study of the human spirit. Each of the characters showing what is most important to them, as well as illustrating how they are all stuck in an endless loop of empty solitude; sitting on the front porch, watching as life passes them by. It's only those who are willing to risk change and upsetting the status quo that have a chance to begin again. Even though there's a definite risk of being hurt by doing so.

Despite the potential heavy-handedness of the subject matter, the cast treats the material with a deep understanding of its story-telling potential, with resulting performances that all ring perfectly true. The play also features Hallie Foote as the owner of the boarding house.

What ties each of the different stories together is the slow, leisurely pace in which they're presented, all with dialogue and attitudes from another era. Yet at the same time, many of the emotions and situations explored are all easily translatable to today's world. It's this ability Foote had of making his plays so specific, yet at the same time so universal, which allows the audience to emphasize with the scenarios presented and characters involved.

The sets by Marion Williams nicely recreate the feelings of the different locations. An especially good touch was the doilies on the couch in The Midnight Caller. Direction by MacKinnon was good throughout, with none of the plays really overstaying their welcome.  The lighting, however, in The Midnight Caller could have been a bit sharper when differentiating the various locations in the story.

Harrison, TX offers three gentle yet telling looks at a time long gone, with more than a few poignant land mines dwelling just underneath the surface.

Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote

Act I: Blind Date
Featuring: Devon Abner (Robert), Andrea Lynn Green (Sarah Nancy), Hallie Foote (Dolores), Evan Jonigkeit (Felix)

Act II: The One-Armed Man
Featuring: Jeremy Bobb (C.W. Rose), Devon Abner (Pinkey), Alexander Cendese (McHenry)

Act III: The Midnight Caller
Featuring: Mary Bacon (Alma Jean Jordan), Andrea Lynn Green ("Cutie Spencer"), Jayne Houdyshell (Miss Rowena Douglas), Hallie Foote (Mrs. Crawford), Jeremy Boob (Mr. Ralph Johnston), Jenny Dare Paulin (Helen Crews), Alexander Cendese (Harvey Weems)

Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Set Design: Marion Williams
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Original Music and Sound Design: Broken Chord
Prop Master: Susan Barras
Production Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Production Supervisor: PRF Productions
Presented by Primary Stages

59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes, no Intermission
Closes: September 15, 2012

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