Small towns in the South often inspire images of people sitting on front porches, fanning themselves and idly chatting, gossiping about their friends and neighbors.The production of Harrison, TX, currently in performances at Primary Stages, certainly depicts the images of Southerners chatting away and the powerful impact that their words can – and do – have.
A collection of three one-act plays by Horton Foote located in the titular town, Harrison, TX is a thoroughly moving, entertaining and educational production. Directed by Pam MacKinnon, it features a stellar nine-person cast that emphasizes the humanity of each character as well as the charm – and horror – of living in a tightly-knit small town.
Foote’s skill with taking simple, everyday matters, and making them appear special, unique and important is second to none, and that is apparent from the first moment of Blind Date, when a man walks into his house, hangs up his hat and takes off his shoes. That simple action foreshadows an eventful evening, and it does not disappoint.
In Blind Date, Aunt Dolores (Hallie Foote) is concerned about her anti-social niece’s lack of suitors and sets her up with the son of a friend. The surly Sarah Nancy (played by Andrea Lynn Green) has no interest in this man – or any man – and makes that very clear. Her aunt, who prides herself on her conversational skills and frequently mentions being featured on the Beauty Pages of her college yearbook, cannot understand Sarah Nancy’s attitude and sets out to fix it, much to the amusement of her husband (played by Devon Abner), who simply wants his wife to cook him dinner. While the evening does not proceed in the way Aunt Dolores would prefer, it offers no lack of entertainment for the audience.
The One-Armed Man, which follows Blind Date, is a much darker story about a former employee of a cotton mill who seeks revenge after being injured on the job. We first meet C.W. Rowe, a successful and extremely self-satisfied businessman espousing on the virtues of capitalism to his wispy bookkeeper Pinkey. His afternoon at the office is soon interrupted by a visit from McHenry, a former employee who lost his arm in an accident at the cotton mill. McHenry has paid weekly visits to C.W. demanding to be given his arm back, but he has made this visit with a different intention. While C.W. has been able to pacify McHenry in the past with soothing words and five dollar bills, those tactics do not work this time.
The Midnight Caller is set in a boardinghouse occupied by several unmarried women of varying ages. There is Alma Jean, who works at the courthouse and prides herself on her virtue, “Cutie”, who is unfailingly cheerful and kind, and Miss Rowena Douglas, a former schoolteacher who is certainly the most pragmatic of them all. The atmosphere of their home is shaken upon the arrival of two new tenants – a divorced man and a local woman with a scandalous past. What ensues is a heartfelt drama that depicts how judgmental and unforgiving a small-town community can be, even when they have no idea of the truth behind the situation.
A play about a small, tightly-knit town requires an ensemble that evokes an authentic sense of community and this cast succeeds greatly. Each cast member is excellent, with Hallie Foote (the daughter of the late playwright) as the amusing, well-intentioned Aunt Dolores in Blind Date. Green is extremely entertaining as Sarah Nancy, stomping down the stairs, slumping on the couch and clearly expressing her disgust while listening to the kind, good-natured Felix (Evan Jonigkeit) recite the books of the Bible. As Uncle Robert, Abner is given much less to do but still gives a convincing performance of an amused and slightly befuddled husband.
As C.W. Rowe in The One-Armed Man, Jeremy Bobb gives a thoroughly formed performance as an upper-class man who is comfortable in his complacency. This play’s depiction of disenfranchised employees exhausted of hearing empty platitudes from management, was uncomfortably resonant in a post-Occupy Wall Street society. While it was clear McHenry is suffering from mental illness after losing his arm, Alexander Cendese (who is excellent in the part), portrays the tragedy this man has suffered and why he has arrived at the place he is. As a contrast to the successful C.W. Rowe and the enraged McHenry, Abner is effective as the beaten-down Pinkey who suffers from lack of ambition and is resigned to the lot he thinks life has cast him.
In contrast to Blind Date and The One-Armed Man, which are set in 1928, The Midnight Caller takes place in 1952. In this play, the women have moved out of their parents’ homes and have jobs, but are far from liberated. Instead, they are held back by worries about their reputations and the only possible escape from their current unsatisfying existences are through a marriage that might be just as unsatisfying. I found myself wrinkling my nose at some of the dialogue (simpering Southern women talking virtuously of their “reputations” while harshly judging other people does not sit well with me), but the stellar acting raised this play above any of its shortcomings.
Foote plays Mrs. Crawford, the eternally patient woman running the boardinghouse, and the always excellent Jayne Houndyshell provides comic relief and a steadying force as Miss Rowena Douglas. Mary Bacon is extremely effective as the pious and sometimes cruel Alma Jean, and Jeremy Bobb plays Mr. Ralph Johnston, the recently divorced man who finds himself the object of many affections and fascinations in the boarding house. Green displays her versatility by giving a cheery portrayal of Cutie, and Jenny Dare Paulin gives a sincere performance as Helen, the woman with the Scandalous Past and Bad Reputation. At times, she is too stoic but she is finally able to show her strength when confronting her former lover.
What struck me about Harrison, TX was the strong feminist undertones of Blind Date and The Midnight Caller, despite the plays having been written decades ago. In Blind Date, Aunt Dolores, who still clings to her accomplishment of being on the Beauty Pages of her yearbook, tells her niece that in order to “entertain men graciously,” she must fake interest in whatever the boy wants to talk about, even if it bores her. While the reason or reasons behind Sarah Nancy’s lack of interest in men is never explained, Green gives a convincing performance that evokes sympathy from the audience, even when she bluntly informs Felix that he looks like a warthog.
And The Midnight Caller gives a blunt portrayal of how cruel gossip can be, especially when it comes from women masking it with “virtue” or “religion.” It is worth noting that while Helen is shamed and scorned for her past, the characters seemed to only express concern and pity for Harvey, her violent, alcoholic former love while she must endure judgment and ostracization. Given the recent debates about birth control taking place in Congress, this hypocrisy felt extremely familiar.
Staged on Marion Williams’ simple set, enhanced by lighting by Tyler Micoleau, and with Kay Voyce’s time-appropriate costumes, Harrison, TX is simple, heartfelt, and accomplished. One wonders if Foote knew how timely his shows would be decades after they were written.