by Samuel L. Leiter
Horton Foote, the admired Texas playwright who died at 92 in 2009, wrote so many worthy plays it’s rare for a season to pass without at least one being revived. The latest is The Traveling Lady, a bittersweet romantic piece, now at the Cherry Lane in a sleepy misfire directed by the ubiquitous Austin Pendleton.
The Traveling Lady’s 1954 Broadway premiere lasted only 30 performances but helped make Kim Stanley, who played Georgette Thomas, a star. (Her performance in a 1957 TV production can be seen on YouTube, while Foote’s freely adapted 1965 movie, Baby the Rain Must Fall, starring Lee Remick, Steve McQueen, and Don Murray, is also easily available.)
It’s 1950 and Georgette (Jean Lichty), the vulnerable young mother of adorable six-year-old Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), has traveled with her little girl by bus from Tyler, TX, to the fictional town of Harrison (Foote’s avatar for Wharton, TX), to reunite with her shifty, ne’er-do-well husband, a singer/guitarist named Henry (PJ Sosko, musically limited).
Henry’s been in the penitentiary for stabbing someone six years earlier in the town of Lovelady. Georgette hopes, with a gullibility born of desperation, that her years of sacrifice to get him released will pay off in a happy reunion. Henry was convicted only six months after he and Georgette were married and he’s never seen Margaret Rose.
When mother and daughter arrive, looking for Henry, they’re treated kindly by Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi) and her widower brother, deputy sheriff Slim Murray (Larry Bull). Their arrival just happens to be on the day that the woman who raised Henry with an iron fist is being buried.
The play’s three acts have been trimmed to an intermissionless hour and 55 minutes, which for those seeking bathroom solace will be cruel and unusual punishment, given the theater’s limited facilities. It moseys along oh so slowly, introducing (briefly) Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen); the dotty, old Mrs. Mavis (Lynn Cohen, who played the role in a 2006 EST revival) and her spinster daughter, Sitter (Karen Ziemba); and Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner), a goodhearted but naïve temperance advocate who, unbeknownst to Georgette, has taken Henry in, to cure him of his drinking.
Foote’s plotting is minimal, mostly having to do with everyone’s reaction to Georgette’s arrival, and Henry’s disappointing reversion to his bad boy ways. There’s also a predictably burgeoning romance between the helpful Slim, whose sorrowful highlight comes when he delivers a speech about how his own heart was broken by his late wife.
Slim—who’s been planning to leave town for a new job in the Rio Grande Valley—and the desperate Georgette have some travel waiting for them on the Texas horizon when the lights go down. As her tagline says: “From Lovelady to Tyler, from Tyler to Harrison, from Harrison to the Valley. Margaret Rose, we sure do get around.”
A company of first-class New York actors fails to find more in their roles than their obvious external features. Cohen gets some laughs as the crabbily senile old lady, but in this day of increasing awareness of Alzheimer’s and its ravages, some may find such humor uncomfortable. Most notably, the flame between Lichty and Bull never ignites and we’re forced to take their love for granted.
Like many other Foote plays, The Traveling Lady focuses on the language and behavior of folksy small town characters, and their limited but nonetheless throbbing aspirations. It’s the kind of play that may seem easy enough to stage: a simple story; straightforward, homespun characters; a cozy environment; and an uncomplicated narrative replete with expository dialogue. But the job is much harder than it looks, requiring pitch-perfect casting, nuanced performances of still waters-run-deep characters; carefully calibrated timing and pacing; and expertly crafted staging that heightens the moods and relationships essential to making the play live.
These qualities are just what director Austin Pendleton’s lethargic production fails to achieve. Rarely does the atmosphere rise to compellingly dramatic levels; rarely is there any tension; and rarely do we care what happens to any of these people, who, for all their basic decency, seem little more than Dixie stereotypes. They drawl, gossip, smile, stare, and pause the time away, all on behalf of a foregone conclusion.
Theresa Squire’s period costumes look right, and Harry Feiner’s evocative lighting, especially when dusk falls, is another valuable contributor. It’s hard, however, to comprehend the topography of his set, supposedly a house’s yard and sun parlor; little evidence of a house is visible—perhaps because the stage is so small—but some furniture, including a lamp, seems meant for an interior, even though placed against a fence backed by a cyclorama showing the Texas sky.
Similarly confusing is the use of the single auditorium aisle for major entrances and exits. If you’re on the aisle, watch your feet!
The Traveling Lady. Through July 16 at The Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, Greenwich Village, NYC). www.cherrylanetheatre.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg