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Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

"The Blind Date"
Evan Jonigkeit, Hallie Foote, Andrea Lynn Green, and Devon Abner.
Photo by James Leynse.

One of the most enduring stereotypes about tiny communities is that everyone knows everyone else. But like so many comforting bromides and oft-told fireside tales, this one has probably never been legitimately true. No one is likely to have known this better than Horton Foote, the long-lived playwright who spent much of his career chronicling the evaporating small town as viewed through the prism of his own cozy childhood home, Wharton, Texas. And it's easy to see from the new collection of his works at Primary Stages, Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote, that for him the notion was a fantasy.

The people depicted in this magical 100-minute evening, which has been directed with copious intelligence and sensitivity by Pam MacKinnon, learn the hard way that others are rarely, if ever, what we think they are or want them to be. And our own prejudices, about matters personal and social, keep us from seeing that we're also never exactly the way we present ourselves to the world. Everyone in all three plays may be from Harrison (Foote's slightly fictionalized version of Wharton), but they may as well live on different planets given how well they relate to one another.

Yet neither MacKinnon nor her outstanding company has gotten tangled in this message. It emerges naturally from the mere performance of these plays, enveloping you first in curiosity and then melancholy as you realize that the hopes and fears that make these people mysteries to themselves and to each other are actually holding them back. The only method of true escape is to open up completely, but even in what's supposedly one of the safest places in the world, doing that is terrifying and unthinkable.

Examples of success and failure at this drive the third play, The Midnight Caller (from 1956, but set in 1952). The female inhabitants of Mrs. Crawford's boarding house are thrown into hysterics at the arrival of Ralph Johnston (Jeremy Bobb), a handsome stranger, who develops a liking for the whispered-about Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin). Helen is more apt to be sequestered in her room and sob about her lot than socialize, because of a recent falling out with her mother. But Ralph is not afraid to attempt to break through her defenses and prove life can be better than she believes.

"The One-Armed Man"
Jeremy Bobb and Alexander Cendese.
Photo by James Leynse.

Helen and Ralph's back and forth is conducted largely offstage, but occurs vividly nonetheless as we see the transformation it effects on them. The dangers of becoming too self-involved are reflected in both Alma (Mary Bacon), Helen's most constantly disapproving housemate, and in Harvey Weems (Alexander Cendese), the alcoholic man who's lost his wife and shambles through the streets at night screaming her name. For Helen and Ralph things may end happily, but those who can't do what they did will seldom be as lucky.

Such clear-cut definitions are harder to find in the other two plays, which were written in 1985 but set in 1928. C.W. Rowe, the man Bobb plays in The One-Armed Man, knows his own business running the local cotton mill, but can't get into others' minds or situations quite so easily. He demonstrates this to us when he lectures his employee, Pinkey (Devon Abner), on the proper way to scrimp and save to get by on a meager paycheck. But he discovers it himself when he's accosted by a man named McHenry (Cendese), whose arm was mangled in a cotton gin and has come to get it back.

Rowe can neither return it to McHenry nor convince him that the task is impossible, but his bigger problems are that he can't recall McHenry's first name and that he won't admit his own failings. He claims to be religious but, when pressed, can't recite the Lord's Prayer from memory. McHenry insists on veracity that's not easily forthcoming, and for which Rowe (and perhaps Pinkey, caught in the blowback) is destined to pay a steep price. But when we demand of those closest to us things we won't give, can anything ever end well?

Subtler and more devastating is the opener, Blind Date. The young Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green) is a social outcast her aunt hopes to turn around by setting her up with a well-meaning Methodist neighbor boy named Felix (Evan Jonigkeit). So hopeless a conversationalist is Sarah Nancy that her aunt scribes a list of questions for her to ask Felix, which of course leads to more awkwardness and confusion than it solves. The girl is, however, willing to try being someone new—for a while, at any rate. But when her fa├žade crumbles, as of course it must, the real Sarah Nancy and Felix are revealed, with about the outcome you'd expect.

"The Midnight Caller"
(clockwise from left) Jayne Houdyshell, Mary Bacon, Jeremy Bobb, Andrea Lynn Green, Jenny Dare Paulin, and Alexander Cendese.
Photo by James Leynse.

Nowhere is it made more clear that the old ways, of closed-off personalities and still more tightly locked-away secrets, will not survive in a rapidly changing world. Green and Jonigkeit depict these near-children people as innocent victims of a long-gone time they can't envision, and the impact is harrowing. The terror Bobb projects about losing his life in one play and rekindling it in the next are alternately unsettling and uplifting, but in each case chillingly real. And Bacon and Paulin scintillate as two women on different sides of, and with different opinions about, a modernity that's too often leaving women adrift.

It all leads to a luxurious tapestry of deceptively complex simplicity, which is heightened by the physical production (most notably Marion Williams's wood-paneled sets and Kaye Voyce's warmly homespun costumes) as well as two key performers. Jayne Houdyshell is quietly wonderful as Rowena Douglas, one of the boarders in The Midnight Caller, someone forever caught at the threshold between her youth and the sad new world spread out before her. Whether Rowena is enduring the battle between Alma and Helen or sitting on a rocking chair and staring out the window as she ponders the changing landscape of her town, Houdyshell's silent glances masterfully reflect a sad, disintegrating acceptance of truths most of us would prefer to never face.

More internalized still is the work of Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter, and one of his finest interpreters. As both Sarah Nancy's aunt and Mrs. Crawford, she struggles to hold on to past proprieties with one hand while being forced to beckon them in with another. Hilarious justifying her actions to the nervous Sarah Nancy and heartbreaking as she presides over the changing morals of youth later, she's a crystalline symbol of the problems and the promise that too often lock us within ourselves.

You feel that each woman she plays would never open up if she didn't have to, and, as a result, you feel that, although you understand them, you never really know them. But, through her work, the actress forces you to see who the Footes are and will continue to be. And, for every moment of Harrison, TX, it's tough to imagine anyone you'd want to know more.

Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote
Through September 15
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Tickets and current performance schedule: TicketCentral

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