BWW Review: Quotidian Theatre's A COFFIN IN EGYPT Gives Horton Foote's Texas a Memorably Hard Look

BWW Review:  Quotidian Theatre's A COFFIN IN EGYPT Gives Horton Foote's Texas a Memorably Hard Look

If you think the late Texas-born playwright Horton Foote, and his fictional home town of Harrison, Texas are little more than genteel curiosities, think again. Life in Texas, then as now, can be as unforgiving as anything you see today.

In Quotidian Theatre's season-opening production of Foote's A Coffin in Egypt, we are confronted with a life that is complex and unapologetic. We meet a cordial but tough-willed Myrtle Bledsoe (played by Quotidian stalwart Jane Squier Bruns), a well-heeled widow in red velvet gown and pearls who is way past the age when she would care what anybody thinks.

Dispensing with polite chit-chat from the git-go, Bruns' performance offers us a hard Texas resolve that shows you the steel behind the magnolia. Myrtle is the survivor of a marriage broken from the start, a mother forced to live in the shadow of her husband's many affairs, who (thanks to her husband's wealth) consoles herself by living for years with her daughters overseas. Forced to return home when the Depression wipes out a chunk of her husband's fortune, Myrtle is forced live as eyewitness to his continued infidelities and crimes.

What's stunning, as you listen to one of Foote's most memorable characters recount her life in chilling detail, is how the crimes of his fictional Harrison, Texas anticipate the horrors that flood our own headlines - old men preying on young women, the law's lenient attitude towards "stand your ground" shootings, rich men murdering with impunity. And the curse of having to encounter your husband's amours whenever you go to town.

Perhaps what fascinates the most about Bruns' performance here is that Foote has deliberately crafted a script that follows the natural twists and digressions of the human mind. A lesser dramaturg would have insisted on a simple, rectilinear tale; Myrtle's memory, by contrast, reflects the natural messiness of how we remember. Overfull from her 90 years on earth Myrtle wanders off, repeats herself, then encircles and finally returns to pivotal events, each time adding on a new detail, greater depth and poignancy.

Because of its finely-etched realistic form, the script for A Coffin in Egypt can be a nightmare to memorize (some of Samuel Beckett's more intricate works come to mind here). In one New York production, a famous actress chose to read directly from the script rather than attempt to master it as Bruns has done here. From a purely technical perspective, this is a brilliant performance; but Bruns imbues Myrtle with that balance between sweetness of voice and harshness of reality which Foote requires.

Another telling, realistic detail comes in the form of Jessie Lydell, played here by E. Lynda Bruce. Jessie is Myrtle's African-American maid, and in typical mid-20th century fashion Bruce plays her as discreet, professional but largely mute. Foote knows how women of Jessie's station interacted with their bosses when company was present, and her lack of agency is as maddening as it is important to remember. The relationship between Myrtle and Jessie is a respectful one, but carefully circumscribed by the rules of social engagement during the early 20th century.

Director Jack Sbarbori has created a suitable drawing-room set with patterned wallpaper and period furniture, and has decked Bruns with a fine, only slightly worn gown that heightens the contrast between Myrtle's poise and her family's underhanded behavior. A Coffin in Egypt is rich in discreet detail, and will leave you pondering the tragedy of Myrtle's long life long after you've left the theatre.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Production Photo: Jane Squier Bruns as Myrtle Bledsoe. Photography by Steve LaRocque.

A Coffin in Egypt runs in repertory with Conor McPherson's St. Nicholas from November 15 to December 17 at The Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, Maryland. For tickets phone 1-800-838-3006, extension 1, or go to www.brownpapertickets.com.

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From This Author Andrew White

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