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Trip to Doubtful 

Horton Foote’s sad elegy to life

Wednesday, Dec 13 2006
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Annie Gayle is young, beautiful, married with two children — and losing her mind. Lest we doubt that anyone as vivacious as Annie can also be in the middle of a mental breakdown, let’s not overlook how abruptly she withdraws from conversation to re-enact the shooting death of her father (“Pow. Pow. Pow,” Annie exclaims with childlike intensity) and can’t seem to remember whether her husband is a businessman or a Catholic priest. The ways ordinary people respond to pressure when, like the manic-depressive Annie, they are suddenly pushed into very dark corners, are the focus of The Roads to Home, Horton Foote’s wry but forgiving examination of life in Texas during the 1920s. (This 1982 play is receiving its belated West Coast premiere at Lost Studio.)

The three-act story opens in the Houston dining room of the middle-aged Mabel Votaugh (Wendy Phillips), as she and her friend Vonnie (Laura Richardson) sip their morning coffee and discuss Annie — the “sad little girl” — who has taken to visiting Mabel every day. We learn that Annie’s family were prosperous Yankees who lived in nearby Harrison until the father’s murder, which Annie witnessed as a child. When Annie (Jenny Dare Paulin) arrives at Mabel’s, the young woman’s erratic conversation makes it clear that her life is seriously unraveling. Annie’s flighty references to doctors’ advice (“Be mature and self-reliant”), and a tense visit from her impatient husband (Brendan Bonner), confirm that she’s just a phone call from being locked up.

Nothing particularly “dramatic” happens in The Roads to Home — its plot explosions have all been detonated earlier, offstage. Act 2 occurs months later in Mabel’s living room, where her stick-in-the-mud husband, Jack (Jim Haynie), drifts in and out of sleep in his easy chair. A distraught Vonnie shows up this night to confess that her own spouse has been cheating on her. The play concludes, after intermission, with Annie attending a formal spring dance at the Austin mental asylum she’s been confined to for the past four years. Although she is much calmer now, Annie seems to move in an amnesiac fog. For that matter, so do the three other patients at the dance, leading us to suspect that, even though this would not be historically accurate, something like electroshock treatments may have had a hand in the serenity they seem to be enjoying.

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On some level, The Roads to Home is an almost cruelly whimsical story. The asylum inmates’ memories continually play humorous tricks on them, and we know exactly how much faith to place in their hopeful talk of leaving the madhouse for home visits. Added to this are the painful crises of Annie and Vonnie, who find no solace in their husbands — or in anyone else but Mabel. Yet a closer viewing reveals Foote’s profound empathy for his characters, and listening to them reminds us that this playwright’s moral universe isn’t made up of a philosophical battlefield between good and evil, but instead the gentle yin and yang of kitchen-table gossip.

Chekhovian comparisons may arise, but these shouldn’t be taken too far. One of Foote’s scenes resembles The Seagull’s end, when Chekhov’s assembled card players hear a shot that causes Dr. Dorn to leave the room. Here, it comes after Annie has been talking with Mabel and Vonnie a little too happily about her two children, when the phone rings, summoning Mabel. However, without giving away anything of Foote’s play, let’s just say that when Mabel returns after hearing news about the kids, she doesn’t have to lie about an ether bottle exploding.

Foote’s world is not without its balms. There is some relief from isolation and unfaithful husbands, and it’s to be found in the narcotizing haze of small talk. In The Roads to Home, Mabel and Vonnie’s chitchat takes on such a melodic rhythm that their judgments against Baptist hypocrites and friends who talk through movies seem less accusations than stoic affirmations of life’s inevitabilities — especially the inevitability of corruption and of forgetting.

Director Scott Paulin has assembled an admirable production that does a lot with few resources. Paulin has moved Foote’s original Act 1 setting from the Votaughs’ kitchen to a dining room (presumably to cut costs and arduous scenic changes associated with a stove and plumbing fixtures), while set designer Jeffrey Whitman has skimped on base molding for this undistinguished room that is rather overlit by Derrick McDaniel. The show, nevertheless, displays a rich psychological texture. From the use of live musicians (Deborah Vukovitz, Francis Soriano and Jason Payne) to the recurring rustle of a back-door wind chime, this production captures a time and place in America where people enjoyed the privileges of simple comfort and technologies while maintaining a medieval code of silence about desires that could tear their families apart.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the spatial and facial relationships between the three women. Whenever Annie babbles about her dead father, or suddenly and discordantly begins practicing music scales, both Mabel and Vonnie exchange glances that communicate so much sadness that they almost render dialogue unnecessary. Vonnie is the caustic naysayer of the two, while Mabel is the enduring optimist — a role that Annie assumes by play’s end. There is, in a sense, a secret feminist current coursing through this production, especially with its treatment of female “insanity” and male control of that issue. Just look at the helplessness on Phillips’ face when, as Mabel, she witnesses Annie’s manic outbursts and when Vonnie’s feckless husband, Eddie (John Bozeman), pops in to borrow cigarettes from Jack as Vonnie teeters on the verge of emotional collapse. The agony is silently telegraphed in Phillips’ eyes and at the corners of her mouth.

There are other faces in this cast, and they are all well-chosen. Richardson’s Vonnie is exquisite in her flinty disapproval of the world, while Haynie, as her husband, is a snoring wreck of a man too tired to wake up and walk to bed. The men in the asylum scene are also memorable: Alex Kreuzwieser as the mute but expressive Dave Dushon; John Blevins in the role of the mouthy Cecil Henry; and John Gardner, in a striking performance as the squirrelly Greene Hamilton, who keeps attacking the dance floor in shoes that are obviously too small. Depending on your views of dancing, you’ll find The Roads to Home’s ending crushingly sad or strangely reassuring.?

THE ROADS TO HOME | By HORTON FOOTE | Second Story Theater at the LOST STUDIO, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. | Through December 17 | (323) 871-5830

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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