By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and screenwriter owes much to the homespun, slightly modernist style of Thornton Wilder and Eugene O'Neill. Foote's characters banter about gossipy and microscopic concerns until you realize he's carving a beautifully calibrated scene that strikes emotionally like thunder — all accomplished with indescribable tenderness.
There's such a scene in "The Land of the Astronauts," which circles for a long time around a local police station where housewife Lorena Massey (Laetitia Leon) has "lost" her husband (Aaron McPherson). A sympathetic (maybe too sympathetic?) deputy (Matt Little) has led her to another city's jail where the man is being held, deranged and despairing for having worked his whole life and attending night school for years, yet still unable to make any headway into NASA's space program. Numb with the futility of his ambition to become an astronaut, he can barely look at his wife. With compassion that's theologically wise, she comforts him while keeping a respectful distance, before gently leading him home to their young daughter (Taylan Wright).
It's a soap opera, of course, but it comes steeped in a metaphysical grandeur whose gentleness is quite unexpected and poetical, thanks in large part to the actors, and the torrents of emotions surging beneath their words.
"A Young Lady of Property" appears at first like the inverse of Nora. A precocious 15-year-old girl (Juliette Goglia) has inherited a house from her mother. She plans to sell it in order to finance a move to and career in Hollywood, until she changes her mind and decides, unlike Nora, that her future lies in home, husband and family. This would appear to be Foote's reactionary answer to the Women's Movement of the 1970s (the play was written in '76) — until the child's father (understudy Rod Sweitzer) tries to sell the house out from under her in order to finance his move to Houston with his new bride (understudy T. Lynn Mikeska). Suddenly, we're back in the land of a defiant female trying to buck a patriarchy, though the female in this case just wants to be home with kids of her own.
The conundrum is smart and appealing precisely because it engages not in arias or anthems but in weird and unpredictable human clashes. It doesn't need to be "spun" by a director to feel contemporary or textured.
Because these plays are not as well-known as Ibsen's, they retain the capacity to surprise on their own terms. And the devoted ensemble, including a live chorus that crosses the stage between scenes, does both of Foote's plays justice under Scott Paulin's loving direction.
Perhaps what makes a play relevant isn't whether it's presented in an "old" style or a "new" style, but whether it's capable of sidestepping the commonplace and taking us by surprise. Foote Notes demonstrates how such a play doesn't need to be brash, so long as it offers a view we might not have anticipated.
A BRIGHT NEW BOISE | By Samuel D. Hunter | Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd. | Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m. (added perfs Sun., Jan. 13 & 27, 3 p.m.; through Jan. 27 | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.com
FOOTE NOTES | By Horton Foote | Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Feb. 9 | (323) 882-6912 | openfist.org
NORA | By Ingmar Bergman, adapted from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House | Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Jan. 27 | (310) 822-8392 | pacificresidenttheatre.com