Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote

by Michael Dale

Has there ever been a father/daughter theatrical combo that sets off sparks like when Hallie Foote acts in the plays of her father, the great Horton Foote?  For Primary Stages, she’s been heartbreaking as the emotionally repressed title character in The Day Emily Married and downright hilariously self-centered in Dividing The Estate.  Now, in the company’s package of three Foote one-acts titled Harrison, TX, she and Andrea Lynn Green open the evening with crackling comic chemistry that’s firmly grounded in reality.

As with most of the playwright’s work, all three pieces take place in Harrison, Texas, a fictional version of his childhood home, Wharton, where he grew up listening to a family full of story-tellers amusing each other with gossip and news.  Set in 1928, Blind Date has Hallie Foote as Dolores, a former beauty queen trying to cure her young niece, Sarah Nancy (Green) of her lack of success with potential suitors, despite the fact that the independently-minded Sarah Nancy clearly has no interest in traditional courtship, or in the boys who come a-calling.  To prepare for a visit from the hopeful Felix (Evan Jonigkeit), Dolores tries coaching her on a list of questions to ask her potential beau, because boys like girls who can have a conversation.  (“Who is going to win the football game next Friday?”  “What is the best car on the market today, do you think?”)

Well-experienced in keeping her spirits up, Dolores remains peppy and upbeat despite her mounting disappointment in Sarah Nancy’s sullen, deadpan disinterest, and the continual interruptions of her helpless and hungry husband Robert (Devon Abner), frustrated that she’s not making his dinner.  The date with Felix is a disaster until the pair winds up ditching conventions and starts being themselves.

Also set in 1928, The One-Armed Man, is a tense drama; not typical fare for Foote.  Alexander Cendese plays a mentally unstable man who worked for a cotton merchant (Jeremy Bobb) until his arm was severed by a picking machine.  He makes weekly visits to the boss’ office demanding his arm be returned.  The annoyed owner offers him $5 a week to stop bothering him with his irrational demand but this time the title character intends to settle the debt his way, once and for all.

The evening ends with the kind of quiet, character study Foote is more known for.  Set in 1952, The Midnight Caller takes us to a boarding home populated by the decidedly girlie “Cutie” Spencer (Green, in a nice reversal from her previous role), the easily-annoyed moralist Alma Jean (Mary Bacon) and the clever and gregarious retired schoolteacher, Rowena (a happily charming Jayne Houdyshell).

The comfortable uneventfulness of their lives is interrupted when the owner (Foote) rents rooms to two new boarders, the divorced Ralph (Bobb) and Helen (Jenny Dare Paulin), a introverted woman disowned by her mother for her relationship with a drunkard (Cendese) who starts desperately calling for her outside the home every evening at midnight.

Ralph’s desire for female company and the scandal created by Helen’s suitor brings up issues of loneliness and morality that affects each character in different ways.

Under Pam McKinnon’s gentle and sensitive direction, the three very different pieces are united by the theme of traditional ideas of class and morality being challenged; sometimes rationally, sometimes not.  The simple elegant design is highlighted by Marion Williams' wood-paneled set that quickly converts into three different interiors.  Graced by an exceptional acting ensemble, Mr. Foote’s modest trio makes for an extremely satisfying time.

Photos by James Leynse: Top: Andrea Lynn Green and Hallie Foote; Bottom: Jayne Houdyshell and Jeremy Bobb.

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After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.