What terrific work we see on stage in Primary Stage’s production of Horton Foote’s The Road to Home, presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre!
The play is a comprised of three scenes centering on three Houston matrons. The first two scenes are set in 1924. In the first, A Nightingale, we meet Mabel, Vonnie and Annie in Mabel’s kitchen. Early in the play is a long speech in which Mabel describes Annie to Vonnie. We need to pay rapt attention to it, and Hallie Foote, as Mabel, is remarkable in her delivery, as she is throughout the play. Annie enters to visit, and we see that she is indeed as emotionally fragile as she’s been described. The second scene, The Dearest of Friends, takes place six months later and focuses on Vonnie’s marital problems.
In the third scene, set four years later, Spring Dance, we find Annie committed to a very nice state psychiatric hospital in Austin. Mabel and Vonnie do not appear and we meet instead some male patients.
The entire cast is superb as well. As Vonnie, Harriet Harris shows us many dimensions of a long-suffering woman. When she remembers something suddenly (she remembers a movie she saw), she seems genuinely surprised at her own thoughts. As the benighted Annie, Rebecca Brooksher is graceful and vulnerable without falling into a stereotype.
Michael Wilson’s direction is meticulous, subtle, masterful. The train whistles and the church bells are unobtrusive. His great accomplishment is to infuse the play with humor without trivializing the lives of these women. This is graceful, delicate naturalism.
Jeff Cowie’s sets are marvelous, indicating period and suggesting space. David C. Woolard’s costumes are great, from the ordinary dresses of the kitchen to Annie’s lovely dress at the institution’s dance.
Through all the dramatic elements, we find ourselves immersed in the setting and period. The character’s dialect is unmistakable American, with a lilting melody, using “see-gar” for “cigar” and “pick-chuhs” for “pictures”.
This isn’t the exoticized American South of Tennessee Williams, with its dueling archetypes. This South is the middle class milieu of ordinary people, and Foote makes the ordinary important. His characters are universal through their specificity.
The company, of course, has taken its tone from Foote’s script. The playwright presents the entire culture these women live in. Mabel is nearly obsessive about the details of Annie’s life. In her first scene speech and throughout the play Foote paints a complete picture of this Texas society. The fictional town of Harrison, Texas, is prominent in the characters’ stories, which Foote has based on his home town of Wharton.
But the script poses a challenge. There’s nearly no dramatic action in these scenes; situation is dominant, not plot. What action there is takes place off stage between scenes and the story is discontinuous. This is not the mechanism we’re accustomed to in receiving theater. It’s the great accomplishment of this company to keep us absorbed through emotionally grounded, fluid acting and sensitive direction.
We meet these ladies’ husbands in the first two scenes, and Mr. Wilson has cast the same actors as Annie’s fellow patients in the psychiatric hospital, in the third. This is an odd choice for a play that is so concerned with the larger society, and we’d prefer to see new faces. But Primary Stage’s Roads to Home is a great success.