Bring on the Mamet. Cue up some Neil LaBute. Somebody, quick, stage something full of cussin' and screwin' and gettin' all nekkid. A month into the ongoing Horton Foote Festival on local stages, the surfeit of antimacassars and rocking chairs in these folksy, G-rated works is wearing me to a nubbin. Which is something a Foote character would say.
See 10 Foote plays in a month—five opened just last week and there are more to come—and you can write your own faux Foote drama. Title it Purty Aprons. Open with a harmonica playing a church hymn, "Rock of Ages" or "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Bring on an old lady in a shawl and sit her in a rocker on a "front gallery" (what Foote called a porch). Have kinfolk come on, arguing about the family estate, farmland, demon alcohol or whichever daughter is a homely spinster. Characters named Son and Sister must repeat the name of the play 25 times—"Them's some purty aprons," "The price of purty aprons is high as a cat's back"—between serving sandwiches, pouring iced tea, going to funerals and staying up all night remembering sad stuff. Send Grandma wandering off to find a lost bonnet or a bus ticket to Harrison, Texas (Foote's fictional stand-in for Wharton and the setting for most of his plays). Then let the old lady wander back under a full moon and die alone on the porch, embroidering a purty apron, as crickets chirp and a train whistles in the distance. The end.
Foote world is a small world. His people are small-town, ordinary people, not New York sophisticates. They live in old-timey places where buses and trains don't stop and where the lone drugstore still sells "Co' colas" and 25-cent cheeseburgers. Not much happens in a Foote play (Dividing the Estate, just closed at Dallas Theater Center, being the exception). Somebody new comes to town, doesn't find what they're looking for and leaves disappointed. We're supposed to feel better for having met Foote's characters. Or feel as if we know people like them. Or would if we ever went to those dreaded family reunions the country cousins hold in that state park every other August.
The plot of Foote's The Traveling Lady is all of the above and not a lot more. This is WaterTower Theatre's entry in the festival and one of the weakest productions in the mix. Georgette (played by Misty Venters) and her little daughter Margaret (Aubrey Rose Hansen at the performance reviewed) get off the bus in Harrison in the spring of 1950. Georgette is there to find a house to rent, and what do you know? The first house she walks up to, which conveniently is the two-story place on the enormous set designed by Clare Floyd Devries, is occupied by nice people who take her and the little girl in, few questions asked.
But trouble's a'brewin', yessirreebob. Georgette's convict husband, Henry (Scott Venters, Misty's real-life spouse with whom she exhibits not an atom of onstage chemistry), has been paroled early. He's living in a boarding house run by a stern temperance crusader (Nancy Sherrard). Henry's not a family man; he wants to "get a string band together" and hit the road. The sight of wifey and kid sends him running for whiskey. A badly acted drunk scene follows—in a graveyard, no less.
Using dumb Dixie accents—"chef" for "sheriff" and "faw" for "four"—the actors in The Traveling Lady forget they're in a play set in Texas and drawl like they're in Driving Miss Daisy. Director Marion Castleberry, a professor at Baylor University and a leading authority on the life and works of Foote, has paced scenes awkwardly and allowed acting that, with one or two exceptions, is more wooden than the fake chinaberry trees planted upstage. Allyn Carrell, as the spunky old gal who keeps running away from home (told ya!), is the sole spark of energy in the cast of 10. If only the play were about her.
Leave it to Kitchen Dog Theater to choose three of Foote's darkest. Their 3 Foote trio of one-acts sports a tight five-actor ensemble that doesn't put a foot wrong (sorry) and gets the rural Texas accents exactly right (thank yew). The lightest of the two-hour three-fer is the 1920s-era Blind Date, directed by Karen Parrish and starring Shelley Tharp-Payton as a former beauty queen worried that her plain-as-grits daughter (Liza Marie Gonzalez) will be an old maid. "Boys need someone peppy to talk to!" says the mother, coaching the scowling girl. A date (the always remarkable Joey Folsom) has been arranged, but when he shows up, he's a big dud, too. When he exits early, Mama flutters into a tizz, ignoring pleas from her weary husband (Chris Hury) for a bite of dinner. Then the extraordinary happens. The date returns, and he and the girl start the evening over. It's sweet.
There's a touch of Twilight Zone about The One-Armed Man, a short parable directed by Jonathan Taylor about corporate greed and eye-for-an-eye revenge. Hury plays a cotton company bigwig who's laid off a worker (Folsom) after a tragic on-the-job accident. When the worker demands restitution, the standoff results in something rare for a Foote play: physical violence. The third play, The Man Who Climbed Pecan Trees, directed by Christina Vela, feels like Foote's attempt at a Glass Menagerie-style drama (he and Tennessee Williams were friends). Demon rum has ruined the life of a young man (Mike Schraeder) whose wife (Gonzalez) has given up on him. Stumbling back to his mother (Tharp-Payton), the drunkard discovers his brother (Hury) has just lost the family fortune in a bad investment. But like Williams' Amanda Wingfield, the mother won't give up hope for a rosy future for all of them. It's heartbreaking. And exquisitely acted.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas has a good production of one of Foote's best-known plays, The Trip to Bountiful, directed by René Moreno. Elly Lindsay gives a subtly drawn, deeply emotional performance in the lead as Carrie Watts, an elderly widow determined to see her homeplace in Bountiful, Texas, once more before she dies. To do that, she must deceive her weak-willed son (Tom Lenaghen) and pushy daughter-in-law (Sue Loncar) and hop a bus back to the boondocks. (Scenic designer Rodney Dobbs achieves some grand surprises in the set changes on CTD's tiny stage.)
Bountiful, its long speeches dotted with scripture and poetic descriptions of times gone by, employs all of Foote's signature clichés. It opens with a hymn and closes with the fragile Carrie suffering one of her "sinkin' spells." Sandwiches are eaten, shawls are worn, rockers are rocked. And were it not for the lovely work by Lindsay, whose big blue eyes say as much about longing and sadness as Foote's dialogue does, it would all be a bit of a yawn. But Lindsay, underplaying and speaking softly, draws us in closer, scene by scene, and makes us care. When she bids Bountiful goodbye, we're not sorry the play is over, just sad to see her go.