Sunday, October 23, 2016

"The Roads to Home" - A sometimes elusive search for comfort

By Judd Hollander

The concept of "home" is more than just a physical location. It's also a state of mind that can conjure up a place from long ago where things seemed to be better, happier and easier to understand. This is the idea playwright Horton Foote explores in his 1982 work The Roads to Home, presented by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Each of the plays' three scenes could stand alone as a separate story, though some of the characters depicted appear in more than one situation. While the scenarios presented are sent in around Austin and Houston, Texas during the period of 1924-1928, they also have links to the fictional Texas town of Harrison. The ultimate home for several of the characters, as well as the location for many of Foote's works.

In "A Nightingale", Mabel (Hallie Foote) and Vonnie (Harriet Harris), two middle-aged housewives, neighbors and long-time friends, are sitting in Mabel's kitchen one weekday morning, swapping various bits of gossip. Coming rather abruptly into this mix is Annie Gayle Long (Rebecca Brooksher), a young married woman with two children. Annie has taken to stopping by Mabel's place almost every day. This despite the wishes of both Mabel and Annie's husbands.

Annie, who has gone through numerous personal tragedies in her life and who is also struggling with severe postpartum depression, is beginning to show signs of a mental breakdown. She apparently latching on to Mabel as both woman originally hail from the aforementioned Harrison. That connection providing the only hint of stability to a mind rapidly losing its grip on reality. Annie's situation appears even more precarious when her husband, Mr. Long (Dan Bittner) appears. His answers to Mabel and Vonnie's questions often contradicting previous statements made by Annie.

While there is no denying the seriousness of the matter, many of the early moments with Mabel and Vonnie call to mind a television sitcom. The women's easy camaraderie and banter reminding one of Alice Kramden and Trixie Norton. High marks also go to Jeff Cowie for his set design work on Mabel's kitchen, which readily brings forth the flavor of the period.

"The Dearest of Friends" continues this rather deft mix of comedy and pathos. Taking place about six months later, Vonnie finds her world upended when her husband Eddie (Matt Sullivan) asks for a divorce. Vonnie explaining this to Mabel and her husband Jack (Devon Abner) in tones that range from bitterness and anguish to caustic humor. All the while Jack is quietly reading the paper, commenting only sporadically. He seemingly knowing more about the situation than anyone else, while wanting nothing more than to stay out of the entire affair - pardon the pun.

The events in this scene showing quite clearly how one person's seemingly perfect existence may not translate to that of another. This becoming especially evident when Eddie appears and gives his side of the story. A subplot to this is the danger of a seemingly endless life of routine. A premise for which the groundwork is laid via the relationship between Mabel and Jack.

Things wrap up with "Spring Dance", which takes place in a garden behind an auditorium where a dance is being held for residents of the local sanitarium. Set four years after events previously shown, Annie is now a patient of said institution as she attempts to recover from her mental collapse so she can return to the life she once had. Annie's fellow inmates including Dave Dushon (Bittner) and Greene Hamilton (Sullivan), two other former residents from Harrison; as well as Cecil Henry (Abner), a somewhat garrulous man from Waco, Texas. As the music from the dance plays on, the setting reminding one of a summer cotillion, Annie finds her still-tenuous hold on reality becoming more and more slippery. At least that's what it seems. It being hard to tell for sure as Greene and Cecil keep giving her different answers in regards to her questions concerning the timeline of events. The idea of home here being something quite precious, but also so idealized, the actuality reality of it will never measure up.

Far more serious than either of the two earlier segments, "Spring Dance" shows what happens to people who are unable to conform to the "normal" world and are instead shipped somewhere out of sight from society until they are able to heal, if ever. Foote's depiction of people's attitude toward the treatment of the mentally ill being one that still exists today. Even with the advances of various forms of treatment that have come into being since the decades in which the scenes are set.

While presenting a very engaging story and a very intriguing message, The Roads to Home falters when it comes to characterization. Only one of those depicted ever becoming more than one-dimensional. That being the character of Annie; Ms. Brooksher basically carrying the entire final scene as her character's troubled mind struggles to reconcile the different information continuously being imparted to her.

Fortunately, the acting of the entire cast more than makes up for any weaknesses in the script. Ms. Foote - the playwright's daughter - and Devon Abner both doing excellent jobs with the material they're given. The two also being the premiere interpreters of the author's work today; each having appeared in numerous productions of Mr. Foote's work over the years. Also excellent is Harris' portrayal of Vonnie, the character going from a jovial and happy housewife to a woman scorned during the course of the play.

Michael Wilson's direction is sound, keeping the story moving throughout and not letting things get either too maudlin or silly at points; while always making sure each of the three scenes always hold one's interest. Most importantly, even if this is the first Foote play you've ever seen and know nothing about the Harrison history that's woven in throughout his works, you can still feel enough sympathy understanding for the different characters and situations to become totally engrossed in the story. Costumes by David C. Woolard work nicely, especially the outfit worth by Brooksher in the final scene.

Despite characters that often are never as deep as they could be, The Roads to Home nonetheless offers a powerful illustration of what "home" means to people and how the reality of that idea often differs from how one truly wishes it could be.

Featuring: Hallie Foote (Mabel Votaugh), Harriet Harris (Vonnie Hayhurst), Rebecca Brooksher (Annie Gayle Long), Dan Bittner (Mr. Long/Dave Dushon), Matt Sullivan (Eddie Hayhurst/Greene Hamilton), Devon Abner (Cecil Henry).

The Roads to Home

Set Design: Jeff Cowie

Costume Design: David C. Woolard

Lighting Design: David Lander

Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada

Wig Design: Paul Huntley

Production Stage Manager: Robert Bennett

Production Supervisor: Mind The Gap

Casting: Stephanie Klapper Casting

General Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations

General Manager: Dan A. Carpenter

Director of Development: Erica Raven-Scorza

Director of Marketing: Phil Haas

Directed by Michael Wilson

Presented by Primary Stages
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Tickets: 212-353-3101 or

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes, one intermission

Closes: November 27, 2016