By Brian Scott Lipton
For long-time admirers of the late, great Horton Foote, the revival of his lesser-known 1955 work The Roads to Home, being presented by Primary Stages at The Cherry Lane, is like a welcome helping of comfort food, with its many references to Foote’s hometown of Harrison, Texas, almost poetic use of everyday language, and, yes, the always welcome presences of his daughter, the sublime actress Hallie Foote, and her husband, the always excellent Devon Abner.
Still, this play – essentially three inter-connected one acts (presented here with one intermission) – isn’t exactly quintessential Foote. The comedy is not just more copious, but broader than usual, and the tragedy a little deeper. It’s a testament to director Michael Wilson (a specialist in Foote’s work) and the excellent ensemble he has assembled that this piece not just coheres, but tickles the funny bone and touches the heart.
Hallie Foote is, as always, perfectly cast: this time, she plays the slightly disgruntled, sometimes feisty Mabel Votaugh, a one-time resident of Harrison now living in Houston with her ultra-laconic husband Jack (played to perfection by Abner). While her life is a tad stagnant, it’s remarkably undramatic compared to the play’s two other women: her next-door neighbor Vonnie (Harriet Harris), a former Southern belle whose marriage to the mild-mannered Ed (a very good Matt Sullivan) suddenly unravels, and Annie (Rebecca Brooksher), the daughter of one of Mabel’s former Harrison friends, who has become completely unraveled, unable to forget the brutal murder of her father some years ago, completely frustrating her seemingly kind husband, Mr. Long (Dan Bittner).
In the show’s first act, before Vonnie’s marriage is in jeopardy, Harris brings out her trademark wry delivery, should-be-patented eyerolls, and ultra-chipper demeanor to remarkably great comic effect. Yet, she also lets us see Vonnie’s own slight dissatisfaction with her life (it’s clear she’d probably be happier back in Louisiana). Still, Foote doesn’t really prepare us for what’s to come, and Harris rises to the dramatic challenge, making us feel as desperate as Vonnie in wanting to see her marriage repaired.
Annie seems a little less Foote and little more Tennessee Williams, with her sudden panic attacks, her rambling reminiscences, and scattered behavior. Luckily, the luminous Brooksher (beautifully costumed by David C. Woolard) is absolutely heartbreaking, especially in the show’s final (and shockingly short) act.
While The Roads to Home is hardly in the same league as Foote’s masterworks, such as The Trip to Bountiful, it’s definitely a journey worth taking.
The Roads to Home continues at The Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street) through November 27. Call 866-811-4111 for tickets. www.primarystages.org
Photos: James Leynse