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A CurtainUp Review
The Traveling Lady
By Elyse Sommer
As you enter the 99-seat theater, you immediately know you're in Foote country -- the shingled house with its front porch where the citizens of Harrison, Texas will gather to give us a glimpse of the by-gone small town life (in Mr. Foote's part of Texas the erosion was the result of cotton being replaced by oil). While he himself has lived far from his beloved Texas, he's kept the people he knew there alive with a whole cycle of quiet homespun plays in which nothing seems to happen, but everything pertaining to the human condition does.
The title character of this delicate and beautifully staged and performed revival is a stranger from another small town whose own life is at a critical crossroad, and whose arrival stirs up a host of memories and regrets among Harrison's citizenry. It's a typical Foote set up to reveal the dark undertones that are as much a part of these lives as the more tranquil and uneventful surface.
The time, as in Foote's A Trip to Bountiful, which has been enjoying a much extended run at the Signature Theater, is the early 1950s. Georgette Thomas (Margot White) -- Mrs. Henry Thomas -- has come to Harrison with the young daughter Margaret Rose (Quincy Confoy) whom she's named after her dead mama and her favorite flower. They're to meet her husband Henry (Jamie Bennett), a Harrison boy she met when he and the band he played with played at a dance in her nearby hometown. They only had six months together before trouble landed him in the penitentiary where pride wouldn't let her and their little girl visit him. Though Georgette arrives in Harrison a week ahead of their scheduled reunion, it turns out that he was paroled a month ago and has been working for Harrison's chief do-gooder, Mrs. Tillman (Alice McLane), purportedly to have a little nest egg for them to start their renewed life together.
It turns out that Georgette's arrival coincides with the burial of Kate Dawson, the woman who raised Henry with more whippings than warmth. This dual set-up for this troubled reunion -- the funeral and the specter it raises of the cause for Henry's troubled psyche -- could easily be forced and melodramatic in any other playwright's hands. But Foote, as always, weaves it all with graceful ease into a variegated landscape with believable and emotionally engaging characters.
Georgette's desperate journey to begin a new life with the husband she barely knows and the continuation of her travelling that mark the drama's climax, plays out on the front porch of the house Clara Breedlove (Rochelle Oliver) shares with her younger brother Slim (Stan Denman), a gentle cotton buyer with a heart of gold -- a heart that remains broken from the blow of being rejected by his wife, even on her deathbed.
Despite Slim and his sister's kindness to Georgette, and the equally friendly welcome from Judge Robedaux (Frank Giradeau) and their neighbor Sitter Mavis (Carol Goodheart), noone can stave off the tragedy of Henry Thomas' incorrigible penchant for trouble -- though Slim's reawakened capacity for love lays the groundwork for a bittersweet ending.
The production is sensitively directed by Marion Castleberry and the cast, though none with names that are likely to ring an instant bell, perform with an acute awareness of Mr. Foote's rhythms. Margot White brings a wonderful fragility to Georgette (the role played in the 1954 New York production by Kim Stanley), the big smile that seems almost etched onto her face and the flutter of her hands never quite hiding the anxious anticipation of bad news. The four older actresses beautifully delineate the personality differences of their characters. Lynn Cohen (whom you may recognize as Golda Meir in the film Munich) is especially memorable and quite funny as Sitter's wacky mother. Young Quincy Confoy is adorable but without being a juvenile scene stealer.
While Stan Denman's is likeable and just the sort of man you would wish to accompany Georgette on the next lap of her journey, Jamie Bernnett is less convincing as the unreliable Henry Thomas. He lacks the physical presence and charismatic charm that would have made him irresistible to Georgette, and his highly emotional please forgive me-- I can't help myself is the only somewhat off note struck in an otherwise perfect little gem.
The production values -- set, lighting, costumes and sound -- all enhance the authenticity of this well worth seeing revival by one of the American theater's true treasures. Don't miss it, or if you haven't yet seen it, A Trip to Bountiful. You might also want to check out our recently posted Horton Foote page.
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