PRIMARY STAGES LAUNCHES ITS NEW SEASON WITH THREE ONE-ACT PLAYS BY THE PLAYWRIGHT HAILED AS "AMERICA'S STORY TELLER"
BY HENRY EDWARDS
In a playwriting career spanning 58 years, Horton Foote, who died in 2009 at the age of 92, created a body of work that brought to vibrant life the town of Harrison, Texas. The fictional location was based on the playwright's birthplace, the Gulf Coast town of Wharton, Texas, on the Colorado River 55 miles southwest of Houston.
Foote's alternative universe seemed to offer no way out, and hardly anyone ever left.
That may sound harsh, but it wasn't. Far from it.
Foote, non-judgmental, compassionate and funny, populated his plays with characters notable for their gentleness, charm, wit, quiet dignity and decency.
Understandably, critics have hailed the writer as the "Chekhov of the small town."
Foote's humanity permeates "Harrison, TX," an intermissionless evening comprised of three miniatures set (where else?) in Harrison. The production launches Primary Stage's new season at 59E59 Theatres.
In order of performance, the one-act plays are "Blind Date" and "The One-Armed Man," both set in 1928, followed by "The Midnight Caller," which takes place in 1952.
Curtain raiser “Blind Date" finds hen-pecked Robert Henry (Devon Abner) and wife Delores (Hallie Foote, daughter of playwright Foote) playing host to Dolores' fifteen-year-old niece, Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green).
Delores, a former high-school beauty queen who has grown into an obsessively gracious, ultra-chatty matron, has set the teen up on a blind date with a young man named Felix. Governed by the "rules" that govern the behavior of small-town Southern women of the 1920s when they deal with men—for example, there are approved topics of conversation, football, church and cars, among them—Delores does her best to prepare her niece for the encounter.
Yet blunt, sarcastic Sarah Nancy adamantly refuses to play the game, and Dolores is beside herself.
“I did not get on the beauty pages of the University of Texas and the Texas A&M yearbooks on my looks alone. It was on my personality. And that can be acquired,” she declares.
When the date finally does occur, it’s a classic—and very funny—mismatch. Nevertheless, it eventually evolves into a quietly touching encounter between two young misfits.
Director Pam MacKinnon (“Clybourne Park”) has been known to allow actors to emote to excess, and although Hallie Foote prances up to the line that deliniates the difference between acting and caricature, she miraculously gets away with it, and the resulting performsnce is a thoroughgoing delight.
Andrea Lynn Green matches Foote beat for beat with a precisely rendered vision of unshakeable sullenness.
In last season’s “High,” Evan Jonigkeit portrayed a naked, glassy-eyed teen junky. Thankfully, this time around, not only is he dressed, but he also has terrific lines to speak, scoring mightily when he names the books of the Bible as a small-town blind date's way of making small talk.
"Blind Date" is deliciously acted and a charmer.
In stark contrast and bearing no resemblance to any other play by Foote, “The One-Armed Man” revolves around the threat of imminent violence.
The play dramatizes a harrowing confrontation between McHenry (Alexander Cendese), a young laborer who lost an arm in the jaws of a cotton baler and has been driven to madness by the accident, and C.W. Rowe (Jeremy Bobb), the overbearing, insensitive cotton mill boss who hired and then fired McHenry after the accident.
The crazed worker makes the impossible request of demanding the return of his arm; otherwise, he will shoot Rowe dead.
The play, only 15 minutes in length and written 27 years ago, uncannily mirrors the rage of the members of today's underclass that feels trapped in the jaws of rampaging capitalism.
Alexander Cendese is terrifying and heartbreaking as the maddened victim, and Jeremy Bobb proves a suitably calloused foil.
“The Midnight Caller,” the most Chekhovian of the trio, takes place in a women’s boardinghouse that is beginning to accept male tenants. The establishment is run by Mrs. Crawford (Hallie Foote this time n a very quiet role), whose spinsterish tenants include a pair of stenographers at the local courthouse, priggish Alma Jean (Mary Bacon), teary and sweet “Cutie” Spencer (Andrea Lynn Green in an absolutely different characterization than her earlier in the evening), and convivial retired schoolteacher and house matriarch Miss Rowena (the brilliant Jayne Houdyshell).
The residents are turned topsy turvy when newly divorced Ralph Johnston (Jeremy Bobb) and Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin) move in. Even worse, Helen's drunk and depressed ex-fiancé (Alexander Cendese, again wonderfully scary and compelling) keeps turning up at midnight to call out for her.
"The Midnight Caller" tends to ramble, yet once again the actors shine, and the play eventually offers a comforting evocation of Foote's respect and affection for the foibles of humanity.
"Harrison, TX" is an emotional satisfying theatrical endeavor.