By: David Sheward
The plays of the late Horton Foote (The Trip to Bountiful, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, dozens of others) are marked by the quiet desperation of small-town life, usually set in his fictional Harrison, Texas. But two of the leading females in The Old Friends, a posthumously premiered work now at Signature Theatre, are anything but quiet.
(The play was first written in 1965, and Foote was revising it off and on until the time of death, in 2009.) Best frenemies Gertrude and Julia are rich, destructive, and loud. Gertrude throws her money around and manipulates her social circle to accommodate her whims, while Julia constantly quarrels with her crass husband, Albert, and her mother, the long-suffering Miss Mamie. Both these nasty ladies drink like fishes, drunkenly falling out with each other, usually over men, only to kiss and make up once they sober up.
Into this den of vipers walks Sybil, who must piece her life back together after the death of her husband, Hugo, Miss Mamie’s wastrel son. The main conflict is between Sybil and Gertrude over the attractive Howard, the manager of the widowed Gertrude’s vast farming empire who wants to strike out on his own. But there are numerous other storylines involving property, jewelry, and multigenerational family squabbles. Though the action can sometimes resemble an episode of Dallas, Foote’s poetry of the everyday still shines through. It’s there in the small details-Sybil leafing through her beloved books shipped from South America where she followed Hugo as he sought his fortune in the oil business; Miss Mamie recalling the tragedies and joys of her long life in Harrison; Howard describing the liberating feeling of flying his own plane, sold long ago to pay off mounting debts.
The histrionics of Gertrude and Julia verge on Tennessee Williams-esque excess. Like Blanche DuBois, Gertrude cannot keep her hands off younger men, is sensitive to bared lightbulbs, and is eventually forced to confront her wasted and drunken self in a mirror. Albert threatens to shoot the flirtatious Julia more than once and almost carries out his threat. Fortunately, longtime Foote director Michael Wilson keeps the proceedings on an honest footing-forgive the pun-and even the most melodramatic moments, such as Gertrude’s volcanic trashing of Sybil’s home, have a grounded reality.
Though Gerturde and Julia are the flashier roles, the center of the play is Sybil and, as with most New York productions of Foote’s work, that core is beautifully enacted by the playwright’s daughter Hallie. Though we have seen variations on this performance in her work in her father’s other plays, she sensitively portrays Sybil’s journey from the sudden shock of losing her spouse to pulling herself together to reluctantly rekindling her romance with her former beau Howard. The quaver in her voice as she quotes a line from Sybil’s favorite poet, Pablo Neruda, fills volumes of subtext. Betty Buckley makes exquisite use of her golden voice as the narcissistic Gertrude, shifting from seductive would-be temptress to spoiled, screaming brat when thwarted. Veanne Cox is also deliciously vile as the mean-spirited Julia. Cotter Smith is valiantly virile as Howard, struggling to escape Gertrude’s clutches.
The remaining roles are not as well developed. Miss Mamie is bit too much like Miss Carrie of The Trip to Bountiful. She even has a valise all packed to flee from rude in-laws, just like that homespun heroine. Even so, Lois Smith manages to suggest decades of Harrison history with her slightest inflection, while the reliable Adam LeFevre rescues the shadowy Albert from one-dimensionality. Likewise, the violent clashes of these characters could have been staged as faux Williams, Albee, or Inge, but in the capable hands of this Signature company, they are pure Foote.
September 13, 2013
Sept. 12-Oct. 13 Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7 :30pm. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $75. (212) 244-7529. www.signaturetheater.org
Photo: Joan Marcus