In college, I harbored ambitions to be a playwright, and took a variety of courses to that end. (On the side of course. I majored in something I thought was more practical. History. “Practical” wasn’t a word I entirely understood.) One of those courses was called, “Dramatic Texts and Versions of the Theatre.”
The catalog title was tantalizing. Would we be going on a roller coaster ride through the Theater of the Absurd, the Theatre of Cruelty, the Theatre of the Oppressed, and so forth? Or would we do a multicultural version of a theatrical Grand Tour, taking in Noh and Ta’zieh, along with the Western tradition from Aeschylus to Punch and Judy.
Instead, we read nine plays by Horton Foote.
I was bored out of my mind. Which just goes to show what an obnoxious little twerp I was.
Foote’s writing is frequently described as decorous, and indeed he depicts a society in which decorum is a prime value. But this is not, I think, what makes Foote or his characters distinctive. What distinguishes them is not their decorum, but their directness. These are characters – over and over again – who actually, in spite of or perhaps because of the conversational strictures of their world, say what they actually feel.
Horton Foote’s theatre might well be described as Theatre of the Direct, and as misdirection and its unraveling is the readiest way to apply a restless intelligence, one thing bright young snots like I was can’t appreciate is simplicity and directness. But grew into that appreciation with time. Foote is the anti-Mament, whose work appears to be blunt on the surface, filled with foul-mouthed in-your-face confrontation, but is all about misdirection and self-delusion, speech designed to hide its true aims from the hearer, even from the speaker, sometimes even from the writer of the speech.
That simple directness is a characteristic of all of Foote’s work, and it is a primary reason to seek him out. And those who would do so can find three short works of his on stage for one more week, at 59E59, a cycle of one-act plays all set in the town that gives the production its name, Harrison, TX.
The three plays are not linked, except by the town in which they take place. The first is a light comedy of manners, set in 1928. Dolores (Hallie Foote, the author’s daughter) is at her wits end trying to set her antisocial niece, Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green) up with a boy. Any boy. She has arranged a blind date (Blind Date is the title of the piece) between Sarah Nancy and a young man, Felix (Evan Jonigkeit), the son of a childhood friend and a perfectly suitable match – he used to play football, he sells insurance, he can recite the names of all the books of the bible in under a minute. Sarah Nancy, needless to say, won’t play along, and much of the comedy comes from Dolores’s increasingly desperate interventions to save the hopeless date.
The play is slight, but what it’s about, it seemed to me, is the evolving relations between the sexes. Sarah Nancy isn’t shy and damaged like Laura in The Glass Menagerie. She’s just sullen and blunt. Dolores stands for graciousness, a particularly female virtue in this play, as her husband, Robert (Devon Abner), prefers to be honest, even to bluntness. If he’s hungry, he says so. If he thinks somebody can’t sing, he says so. He’s polite enough not to say it flat out to a stranger’s face, but he isn’t going to fault Sarah Nancy for doing so, for telling the simple truth. Sarah Nancy is going to have to figure out how to get on in the world without telling gracious white lies all the time – she’ll have to learn to hold her tongue, at a minimum, which she does by the end of the play – but we get the sense that she, rather than Dolores, is more typical of the future aborning, for better or worse.
The second play, far more sharply dramatic, revolves around a complacent manager of a cotton mill, C. W. Rowe (Jeremy Bobb). A man has come to see him, a man who has come before, many times, and Rowe is sick of it. He tells his bookkeeper, Pinkey (Mr. Abner again) to get rid of him, and gives him five dollars to make him go away. In the course of conversation, it comes out that Pinkey is in debt, which Rowe can’t fathom, and he proceeds to lecture Pinkey on thrift and proper husbandry, a lecture to which Pinkey submits meekly.
But the man in the vestibule won’t go away, and Rowe finally lets him in. It’s a former employee, McHenry (Alexander Cendese), who lost an arm working Rowe’s machinery, who’s come for his arm back – and when Rowe won’t give it to him, he pulls a gun on him. Rowe offers him more money, a new job, anything, but McHenry, like Inigo Montoye, wants something he can never have back – in his case, his arm. (The play is called, The One-Armed Man.) And nothing McHenry can say, not even his half-remembered prayers, can save him.
Listening to Rowe, I felt like I was still in Tampa at the Republican National Convention. But this isn’t a Clifford Odets play. The point isn’t that Rowe is a bad guy, who treated McHenry unjustly. The point is that you can be completely direct, completely clear, and there are some things you just can’t get, and can’t reconcile yourself to not getting.
That theme carries over into the last, most complex play of the evening, The Midnight Caller. The setting is a boarding house for spinsters, one, Alma Jean (Mary Bacon) self-satisfiedly so, another, Miss Rowena (Jayne Houdyshell), unhappily resigned to being so, and the last, “Cutie” (Ms. Lynn Green again) quietly desperate not to remain so. They form the chorus, by turns catty, consolatory and covetous, to the drama initiated by the arrival of two new boarders: Mr. Ralph Johnston (Mr. Bobb again), a divorcee from out of town, and Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin), a woman with a “history” as they say, who’s fled her mother’s house after a final row.
Needless to say, Helen and Mr. Johnston wind up an item. But Helen’s past hasn’t gone away. Her old beau, Harvey Weems (Mr. Cendese again), can’t accept that she’s given him up (because of his mother’s opposition, and because he returned to the bottle), and he comes around, every night around midnight, to wail Helen’s name. Harvey’s finally locked up for his own good (he tries to hang himself when he finally gets that Helen has moved on), and Helen and Mr. Johnston leave for Houston to be married, but even this doesn’t silence his voice, which can be heard, faintly, all the way from the town jail as the play closes.
This last play is set in 1952, a quarter century later than the first two plays, though written a quarter century earlier (it was written only a few years after the setting, while the first two one-acts were written in the 1980s). And it feels like a younger man’s play, less-focused and with more business. But because of its placement in this production, it reads as a depiction of how the society depicted in the first two acts has evolved. The settled world of arranged dates with gentleman callers and an unshatterable workplace hierarchy has become more fluid. But men still will ask for, cry for, demand at the point of death the thing they’ve lost, and still don’t get it.