BWW Interviews: Michael Wilson Directs THE OLD FRIENDS at the Alley Theatre

Hallie Foote and Betty Buckley
in The Old Friends

Esteemed director Michael Wilson returns to the Alley Theatre to direct Horton Foote's The Old Friends, opening this month. Wilson was Associate Director at the Alley Theatre from 1990 to 1998 and has directed more than 20 productions, including Elizabeth Egloff's Ether Dome and Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children and The Trip to Bountiful. He received a 2010 Drama Desk Award for Foote's The Orphan's Home Cycle, as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Direction of a Play. He directed Foote's Dividing the Estate on Broadway which received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play, and Matthew Barber's Enchanted April on Broadway, which received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. The Old Friends is a highly anticipated production with a mega-talented cast and a truly gifted director. Wilson and I talked about The Old Friends, Horton Foote, and growing up in the South.

BWW: You're the go-to director for Horton Foote's plays. What moves you about The Old Friends?

Michael Wilson: There are many things that move me about what is arguably the most shocking and sensational play Horton ever wrote. But among the most moving things is that this Alley Theatre world premiere staging (produced in collaboration with Signature Theater Company who premiered the play last season Off-Broadway) unites many of Horton's 'old friends' and collaborators, beginning with his daughter Hallie (long considered the foremost interpreter of Horton's work), Betty Buckley (who is continuing a 30 year association with Horton that began with her acclaimed performance in Horton's Oscar winning film Tender Mercies), Annalee Jefferies (who continues her own 23 year association begun with her celebrated performances in Dividing the Estate and Talking Pictures in 1991), and myself, who first collaborated with Horton as a director in 1997 (when I staged the world premiere of The Death of Papa starring Matthew Broderick, Ellen Burstyn, Hallie and Polly Holliday). It is wonderful to have so many artists working together who shared such a close collaboration with Horton over so many years. It is reflected in the sensitivity and nuance of the actors' choices, which provides an anchor of rich understanding that binds them with the marvelous actors that are enjoying their first time at living in the deeply human, vulnerable, shrewdly funny and deftly poignant world of Horton Foote's America.

BWW: You have done so many plays that are dominated by female characters. Why do you think this is?

Michael Wilson: Like Horton, I grew up in the South, though my home was not a small town (like Horton's Wharton, Texas) but rather a small southern city (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), which has a similar shared sense of familial and communal legacy. In the South, it is most often the women who bind families and communities together, through much care taking, but also through their storytelling. Throughout my childhood, almost every Sunday featured a trip to the small Piedmont town of Spencer NC where my parents' families worked for the railroad and the textile mill. Many of my relatives lived in houses with wide wrap around porches. My earliest memories are of sitting on these galleries, listening to my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and her eight sisters tell stories of the Great Depression, World War II, and the post war boom time when my parents married, and my father's aunts all had played a role in the wedding, including my Aunt Emily who years later recalled on her death bed to my mother, "I dressed you on your wedding day." The women in my family created interest in me for the past. They turned my parents' seemingly ordinary lives into an extraordinary high wire act. The power of their storytelling instilled in me an affinity, curiosity, and compassion for women that continues for me to this day.

BWW: What are some themes of The Old Friends and how do they resonate in today's world?

Michael Wilson: The title of Horton's play is a fiercely ironic one, given that the play's old friends who are thrown back together after a 30-year absence can hardly be described as treating one another remotely like friends. One of the questions that the play is exploring is what makes a friend, and what responsibilities and duties do we have to that friend when they fall on hard times. Moreover, the play holds a frightfully dark microscope on American mores, and poses the question do we value money and profit more than we do friendship, or even true love? In the play, Betty Buckley's character (Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff) has recently ended her loveless marriage due to the death of her husband, and she immediately sets out to woo his younger brother - Howard Ratliff - to be her next husband, showering him with money and gifts. However, thirty years ago, Howard loved another woman, Sibyl Borden, whom now has suddenly returned to Harrison under tragic circumstances. Will Howard follow an avaricious path and marry Gertrude? Or will he follow his true heart and marry his high school sweetheart, who has returned to Harrison a penniless widow? The play poses the question as to what would make each character truly happy? For most, happiness is defined by how much capital they have amassed, and their material possessions.

Moreover, the play asks us to consider if we can truly change, and if so, how? Specifically, can we change in a profound enough of a way that a true goodness will emerge, enabling us to lead and influence others onto their own paths of self-discovery and righteousness? Or, are we doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again with our lives, never learning from our past experience, never really growing emotionally or psychologically, instead only growing our bank accounts, which we clutch with white knuckles , praying our positive balance sheet will erase our heartache, loneliness, despair and depression.

Finally, the play casts a dim view on capitalism, suggesting that only the people who have courage to relinquish their ingrained materialism, and take up the rod and staff of spiritualism, will have a truly self-actualizing revolution.

BWW: What do you love most about being a director?

Michael Wilson: Growing up with a family of storytellers, I now enjoy being one myself. One of the most important jobs of directing is to be a tenacious, commanding storyteller, with the passion and power to stir and stoke the rehearsal hall into delivering audiences the clearest, most imaginative and deeply felt version of a play or screenplay's story. A director does this best by incorporating the most powerful and colorful aspects of the story, incorporating design, staging, acting, and score to create an evening of theater that is truly riveting.

Also, I love being in a room with actors. Nothing lifts my day more than being in the company of motley, talented, impassioned, intelligent, brave and generous actors, who every day, inspire me to do my very best work possible. It is as if we have made a contract that each of us will push the other one to go the most far in realizing their own potential. If I ever feel tense or anxious about a project, I calm myself by remembering that tomorrow I will be back in the rehearsal hall in the company of actors, creative problem solving as a group to find the best solutions to whatever challenges of storytelling may have presented themselves. In this way, the director (along with the playwright) is not only a chief storyteller of the evening, but the leader of the process of creating the telling, and thereby has the opportunity (and responsibility) to create a space in which actors and designers alike can do their best work. Ultimately, we help people uncover the means to fulfill their own potential, and as such, perform as both a surrogate parent and inspiring leader for the acting company.

BWW: I read a quote by you that really moved me. You said, "...If we don't honor the past- the places, the people, the communities from where we've come- we are in danger of losing the very essence of ourselves." What would Horton Foote have to say about that?

Michael Wilson: This is an idea that I think runs deep and constant through most of Horton's plays and films. For example, The Trip to Bountiful opens with Mother Carrie Watts and her son Ludie in desperate crisis because they have lost contact with their rural home of Bountiful, TX, and have become unmoored by the urban chaos of Houston, to the point that Ludie has had a nervous breakdown, and his mother is severely depressed. Only when Mrs. Watts dares to become a rebel and practically an outlaw when she runs away to make her epic trip home, do she and Ludie have a chance of finding some genuine peace and contentment in their lives once more. In Dividing the Estate, Mary Jo and her family have severed their connection to both her mother and the family's generational home in order that they can clamor more vociferously for an early cut on their share of the family estate in order to ease the immense financial pressure they have created by over leveraging themselves. Horton suggests that her siblings have similar shortcomings, and that it will only be through their forced return to live on the ancestral home that the family might shake off their selfish materialism, and regain their dignity.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

For tickets to The Old Friends, go to:

The Old Friends will run from August 20 - September 7.

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