For those Texans who didn't grow up to be cowboys (or cowgirls), there's always been the option of becoming a character in a Horton Foote play – some small-town dreamer, say, who stands behind a screen door and watches the world go by; or a front-porch poet who rhapsodizes about the changing leaves of pecan trees. Scott Paulin, who staged last year's fine revival of Foote's The Roads to Home at the Lost Studio, has struck gold again at the same venue by gathering together a trio of one-acts penned by the playwright over a span of more than half a century. The three stories are gentle examinations of a period (roughly the 1930s and 1940s) and a people whose loneliness transcends time.
Dating hell, country style (Schaub and Karr)
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The most rewarding is “The Midnight Caller,” set within a purgatorial boarding house in Harrison, the imaginary town Foote uses for many of his plays. (There is a real Harrison, Texas, but it's far too small for even Foote's stories – or, at least, for his characters' ambitions.) What has for years been a house of women changes with the arrival of Ralph Johnston (John Pirruccello), a stolid gas-company employee. This male invasion outrages Alma Jean (Briana Mandel), a high-strung complainer who becomes even more incensed when another room is rented by Helen Crews (Elizabeth Carlson). Helen, following a breakup with her alcoholic boyfriend, has fled her meddling mother's talons in search of some kind of independence. What she finds instead is Ralph, who snags the young woman on the bounce.
The boarding house, run by the flinty Mrs. Crawford (Laura Richardson), is thrown into turmoil by the addition of the new renters. For some reason, Alma Jean regards Helen as little better than a street prostitute, although both the matronly Rowena Douglas (Wendy Phillips) and the younger Cutie Spencer (Lea Endres) show far more sympathy toward Helen. Rowena is a fluttery soul who still marvels at the moon's phases and the lightning bugs flitting outside the living-room window, while Cutie busies herself with jigsaw puzzles when not given to occasional crying jags. The titular “midnight caller” is Harvey Weems (Alan Savanapridi), Helen's ex, who materializes every midnight to stand drunkenly outside the boarding house and call her name, a soused wraith whose broken heart will never mend.
The New York Times' Brooks Atkinson didn't quite know what to make of Foote's prairie stoicism. In his review of a 1958 production, he faintly praised Foote for refraining from imposing an authorial viewpoint on “The Midnight Caller”'s characters, but saw a danger in this play that “can make ordinary characters look dull and hackneyed.” Worse, thought Atkinson, Foote's “homespun poetry looks like soap opera on the stage.”
As in Foote's other work, there's a benevolent acceptance of the fallen world and its dust-covered creatures. We recognize such familiar impulses as lust and hope in Ralph and Helen, but it's the spectators to the couple's sudden romance who set the tone for Harrison's Chekhovian circus of sad clowns and dreamy optimists.
Paulin, however, avoids stressing the King of the Hill regional comedy of “The Midnight Caller”; there are moments when Rowena in particular seems on the brink of wobbling into parody, but Paulin knows just when to have his actors pull back. His ensemble – and their accents – are impeccable, with the three young women delivering their lines in voices that sound like water trickling in a brook, their pale faces and Andrews Sisters hair making them into doll figures of wide-eyed wonderment. (However, Alma Jean, Helen and Cutie all seem more than a little on the young – and attractive – side to make the talk of their pending spinsterhood seem valid.)
The production is further powered by design elements obvious and subtle. Jeff Whitman's boarding-house set is a plain diorama of Protestant rectitude, featuring dull wood paneling and an almost harsh absence of tchotchkes and ornamental extravagance. Wardrobe consultant Rosemary Schaub dresses the women in summer print dresses and white anklets. An uncredited sound design unobtrusively supplies a chorus of crickets, which is more than a naturalist embellishment – listen carefully, and between the crickets' chirp you may hear the inexorable tick of a clock.
The next two plays carry on with the same dedication to detail and portraiture, but cannot match “The Midnight Caller”'s complexity. Blind Date shows what happens when an aunt and uncle (Richardson and John Bozeman) set up a truculent tomboy named Sarah Nancy (Sarah Schaub) on a date with Felix (Eddie Karr), a Bible-quoting young neighbor who's been bribed to come calling on Sarah Nancy.
The actors acquit themselves nicely, but their characters are too one-dimensional for them or Paulin to make much hay with. This is a case where Foote all but begs to be misinterpreted. The fault, dear Brooks, is not in soap opera but in sitcom, and this single-note play seems uncomfortably close to some old Carol Burnett Show sketch.
Foote's “The One-Armed Man” is a nasty little meditation on class, greed and personal responsibility set in the office of a cotton mill. After boorishly lecturing his accountant, Pinky (Michael McGee), about initiative and self-improvement, a Babbitt-like blowhard named C.W. Rowe (John Blevins) finds himself confronted by a former employee (Savanapridi) who lost his arm in a cotton-gin accident.
“Give me back my arm!” the one-armed man repeatedly demands. Then he evens the class equation a bit by pulling out a gun. It's a small gem of a play (22 minutes long) whose acting here keeps us on edge. Paulin doesn't just pull the scene's emotional strings, he plays them like piano wires.
Watch an American Theatre Wing roundtable with Horton Foote: