When we watch a Horton Foote play we're usually in small-town Texas, with middle-class characters speaking in Southern drawls whose dialogue is believable, instantly accessible, and eminently stage worthy. The plays, often set in the mid-twentieth century, are invariably well-structured, realistic studies of family and romantic relationships showing how ordinary people struggle with problems of love, death, ambition, and financial need. The plays use little profanity and, while sexual issues are present, they are not used exploitatively but as organic byproducts of people striving for happiness. Often, he uses the same locale, Harrison, TX, as his background, and the same characters are likely to appear in multiple works. Some of Foote’s plays have been compared to those of Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, touches of which can be discerned in the latest product of his pen, THE OLD FRIENDS, now on at the Signature Theatre in a finely acted and designed production directed by Michael Wilson.
Foote died in 2009 without THE OLD FRIENDS ever having had a full production. Several of its characters appeared as early as 1942, in his ONLY THE HEART, staged in Greenwich Village before moving to Broadway. The same characters appeared in THE BEGINNING OF SUMMER, a play that was first produced in Bethesda, MD, in 2005, 50 years after it was written, and that has not yet been seen in New York. Foote began THE OLD FRIENDS, once called THE DISPOSSESED, in 1964, and worked on it off and on for years until a reading was done at the HB Playwrights Foundation in 1982, followed by another by the Signature Theatre in 2002. According to the program note, this one, which featured Betty Buckley, inspired the playwright to polish the script, and the result is this posthumous premiere of THE OLD FRIENDS.
From left: Veanne Cox, Sean Lyons, Adam LeFevre. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The two-act, six-scene (three in each act) drama brings us once more to Harrison, the year being 1965. It begins in the living room of a home owned by the matriarch Mamie Borden and her wealthy daughter, Julia (Veanne Cox), and son-in-law, Albert Price (Adam LeFevre). The acid-tongued, good time-loving Julia is engaged in a sort of middle-aged women’s rivalry with her girlhood friend, the recently widowed, frequently drunk, and even wealthier Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff (Ms. Buckley). The haughty Gertrude, inordinately proud of her millions, is nevertheless dependent on and romantically inclined toward her farm manager, Howard Ratliff (Cotter Smith), her despised late husband’s brother, whom she drunkenly accuses of having slept with every woman in town. For his part, Howard pines for the girl that got away 30 years ago, Sybil (Hallie Foote), who went off to Venezuela to search for oil with her husband, Hugo, Julia’s brother. Sybil, who lost an infant and now has lost Hugo, returns to Harrison, her only possessions of value her jewelry, seeking to start life anew although admittedly "at the mercy of strangers." Thrown into the mix as well is a an opportunistic young man, Tom Underwood (Sean Lyons), who sees these people as a stepping stone to wealth and whose good-looking presence stirs the libidos of both Julia and Gertrude, although it is the former who actually has an affair with him, leading Gertrude to brand Julia a "whore." It also brings the boozed-fueled Albert onto the scene with a loaded gun, seeking revenge.
As the occasionally soap opera-ish multiple plot strands work themselves out, the action shifts to Gertrude’s elaborate boudoir, with its long, silken draperies reminiscent of plays like SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and then to Sybil’s house, into which she has moved with Mamie. She can no longer bear to live with Julie and Albert, although his nastiness toward her seems a bit contrived, as Mamie does little in the play to earn such bitterness.
Hallie Foote and Cotter Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As the events pile up, so does the drinking, leading to highlight scenes in which Ms. Buckley’s bravura performance of the boozing Gertrude stops the show; Ms. Cox, it should be added, gives her tit for tat in the liver-pickling department. The drinking helps fuel the dialogue, which is ripe with talk of legacies, property, farming, work, business deals, lawyers, the search for happiness, missed opportunities, jealousy, and greed. Melodrama and comedy play their part in grabbing your attention as the characters jockey for control over their own lives and those of others.
Hallie Foote, Betty Buckley, Cotter Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Almost everything works, from Mr. Wilson’s smoothly staged, perfectly paced direction, to Mr. Cowie’s attractive sets, which combine segmented house sections with a painted backdrop, to the exquisite lighting of Rui Ruta. Gertrude’s bedroom cum sickroom is evocatively highlighted with sconces and a chandelier, and the sepia-toned warmth of Julia's home offers another example of exemplary lighting design. Most of David C. Woolard’s costumes capture the period style, especially those worn by Julia, although the commonplace clothing worn by young Tom is a small misstep. The original music, some of it Mexican-tinted, contributed by John Gromoda between the acts adds greatly to the atmosphere.
Lois Smith and Novella Nelson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Nearly all the acting, including the small role of the black maid, Hattie (Novella Nelson), is first-rate, but the loudest kudos are earned by the powerhouse performances of Betty Buckley as the rapacious and manipulative yet somehow sympathetic Gertrude; Veanne Cox as the desperately bored, sexually available Julia; Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter and a specialist in his work) as the patient and low-keyed but tightly wound Sybil; and, as always, Lois Smith, as the aged Mamie, who tremulously watches her family falling apart as she herself moves closer to her final resting place.
These may not all be the kind of old friends you'd look back on warmly if you knew them in real life. But on stage they're lifelike enough to let you make their acquaintance and to enjoy the experience while it lasts. That's a tribute to both the writer and the artists who have skillfully realized the world Mr. Foote created. THE OLD FRIENDS is a good old-fashioned play given a good old-fashioned production. If you've never seen a Horton Foote play before, this is as perfect a time as any to friend him.