The title alerts theatergoers to pay attention. Horton Foote was an important writer, a gifted storyteller who earned two Academy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.
When Foote’s plays are staged, it’s worth making the time to see them, such as the one-month run that opens Tuesday (Aug. 14) at off-Broadway’s Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. This black box consistently shows excellent plays to a mostly subscription audience. Sure, it’s wonderful to be dazzled on Broadway. This is not a play — or rather three short plays — that dazzles.
Rather they are contained character studies of people living in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, which Foote had said was based on his hometown of Wharton, Texas. That’s the connection; the plays all take place in Harrison, two in 1928, before anyone knew what the next year would hold, and one in 1952. The only other constant, besides the locale, is that the town’s cotton gin is a fact of town life in all.
Husband and wife Devon Abner and Hallie Foote (Horton’s daughter, who frequently performs her late father’s work) play a husband and wife, Robert and Dolores, in the first, “Blind Date.”
Dolores, a charming and beautiful Southern belle, is determined to play matchmaker for her niece, Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green). And Sarah Nancy is just as determined to be as ornery and sullen as possible.
This is the lightest of the three plays, and has a few lines that make people laugh, but it’s not a comedy. It’s a study in a marriage and a time; Dolores is appalled by her niece’s disinterest in settling down and rudeness to the gentleman suitors Dolores rounds up.
Dolores writes a list of questions for Sarah Nancy to ask the young man who comes calling, and among the approved topics of conversation are football, church and cars. Sarah Nancy refuses to play along in any respect. Yet there’s a sweet lightness to this study in manners now considered quaint.
The middle production, “The One-Armed Man,” is the darkest and that’s saying something considering the last one involves a drunk who attempts suicide. In both, Alexander Cendese (Broadway’s “A View From the Bridge,” TV’s “Body of Proof”) plays the tortured young man.
As McHenry, Cendese had a hideous accident at the cotton gin and lost his arm. Now he stops by to harangue the boss, C.W. Rowe (Jeremy Bobb), demanding his arm back. McHenry has gone mad and it doesn’t help that Rowe is a sanctimonious overlord. This is the least satisfying of the plays, yet it has the feeling of a short story that will haunt for quite a while.
The third play, “The Midnight Caller,” is the longest and features Foote as Mrs. Crawford, who is running a boarding house in Harrison. Her boarders include Miss Rowena Douglas (the wonderful Jayne Houdyshell, Broadway’s “Follies,” TV’s “Conviction”), a teacher, and Alma Jean and Cutie (Mary Bacon, Green), stenographers at the local courthouse.
It’s a small enough town that everyone went to school together, people’s mothers were childhood friends, and don’t even think about having an affair because news of it would get home before the assignation were over.
Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin, “Dawson’s Creek”) has a mean, half-crazy mother who kicks her out over her long and tortured love with the wealthy alcoholic Harvey Weems (Cendese).
Foote, who brings grace and ease to her father’s work, is terrific to watch as a middle-class wife and as a hard-working woman running a boarding house. She moves in elegance, whether with her husband in the first play, or with Houdyshell in the third.
Houdyshell is a wise older woman, giving counsel to the younger women, but wise enough that she does so only when asked. Cutie, far different from the sullen Sarah Nancy character, is an open, sweet woman in this who wants to settle down.
Alma Jean, the self-appointed moral arbiter, is one of those pursed-lipped people certain of their moral superiority, which she hides behind to not show how hurt she is that a new boarder, Mr. Johnston (Bobb), is not interested in her.
The brief appearance of the lovesick and alcohol-soaked Weems is the focal point of the action in this play, and it’s so sad because his misery has broken him and Helen.
None of the plays have moments when you want to cheer or cry, but each features characters sure to resonate. Foote, who won an Oscar for the screen adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and for his original screenplay “Tender Mercies,” is worth listening to even when the plays are short, and especially when they play in an off-Broadway black box that consistently showcases important plays.