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The Last of the Thorntons
By Elyse Sommer
Welcome back to Harrison, Texas, playwright Horton Foote's stand-in for his hometown of Wharton. If you're unfamiliar with Foote's work, forget about action-packed stories about gun slinging Texans. Foote's Harrison is fifty miles South of Houston, so it's more akin to a plantation Southern town than a boom town like San Antonio. Although Mr. Foote left Wharton after he graduated from high school he has devoted his prolific stage, screen and television writing career to chronicling the stories of his home town's citizens.
A Foote story is typically rather uneventful, anecdotal conversations of people gradually revealing glimpses of the disappointments and pain simmering beneath the tranquil surface. The stage plays, especially, tend to be an acquired taste -- a taste nurtured in no small measure by the fact that Foote has been blessed by having his characters portrayed by actors attuned to his still waters run deep style. His good fortune in this respect has not deserted him with his just opened new play, The Last of the Thorntons.
To play Alberta Thornton, the title character, there's Hallie Foote, a consistently outstanding interpreter of her father's work (and more recently that of her sister Daisy's -- see link to When They Speak of Rita). Alberta is an unmarried woman of sixty whose "nerves" have prematurely landed her in a Harrison nursing home -- as it turns out, permanently so.
The time is 1970 when the term spinster has stopped being au courant. Yet with her thin lips, tightly clenched hands, nondescript flowered dress, Alberta is the epitome of all that term implies -- a powderkeg of pent-up frustration and neediness, whose tension occasionally explodes into stripping out of her decorous shell and taking off her clothes. Watching her you suspend your doubts about the actress portraying a woman of sixty.
Alberta's reality goes back to the painful loss of her mother, a trip to Hollywood when her nephew Harry auditioned for the movie The Yearling and where she found herself as outdated as her idols -- Pola Negri, Mae Murray, Rudolph Valentino. The pain of Alberta's 1970 reality, which seeps through the ninety minutes like an uncontrollable blush, stems from the fact that though she's the last to bear the once distinguished Thornton name, her cousin Douglas Jackson (Michael Hodge) has sold what she considers her rightful home to pay for keeping her in the nursing home.
As Fannie Mae Gossett, the kind-hearted and gossipy repository of all of Harrison's personal history, the unfailingly wonderful Estelle Parsons is funny and disarmingly poignant. She's Foote's dynamic switchboard and M.C., initiating and connecting what without her would be just a series of anecdotes.
Miss Parsons alone is worth a trip to the western most reaches of Forty-Second Street. Her buoyant and spry 78-year-old arrives at the nursing home to deliver medicine and visit Alberta and Annie Gayle Long (Jen Jones), and to fill us in on who was who. Through her we learn that Alberta was quite something in high school, voted Miss Personality and with a future filled with possibilities. Her only move was to Houston with her two married (and divorced, and now dead ) sisters.
Like Alberta, Fannie Mae has never married, but, having never entertained great expectations, she is less brittle and bitter. Her visit to the nursing home fortunately keeps her on stage through the end of the play. Miss Parsons and Ms. Foote together are an unbeatable team. You won't soon forget when Alberta, given her "sentence" of life in the nursing home along with family photos which include one signed "lest you forget" by Valentino (most likely a stock photo she received by mail), is prompted by Fannie Mae to sing "The Sheik of Araby."
While Ms. Foote and Ms. Parsons dominate the play, Mason Adams lends strong support as Lewis Reavis, a resident of the nursing home whose declaration of "everyone I know is dead" is a leitmotif that could well be expanded to "and everything as I knew it is gone." Like Alberta, Lewis' reminiscences are as much a look back in anger and regret than nostalgia. When he talks about his short marriage to a young widow with two children who proved too noisy for his mother (and him?) to accept, Foote fans will be reminded of his 1986 play The Widow Claire in which a young Matthew Broderick courted a vibrant young widow with two noisy children (played by Hallie Foote). In The Last of the Thorntons we see these characters' older counterparts. Alberta and Lewis exemplify youthful dreams irretrievably shattered and the playwright's concerns about the enduring pain of loss and abandonment.
Thorntons is probably even more akin in mood and pace to a half-hour one-acter, The Road to the Graveyard (part of the 1985 Ensemble Studio Theatre's One-Act Marathon). There are times when this new play seems so bent on building its characters without the slightest concern for moving towards a dramatic climax that you may find yourself wishing it were also presented within a shorter, narrower framework. Fortunately, the contributions of the minor characters keep your attention from straying too often. Jen Jones and Anne Pitoniak are particularly strong as two other female residents.
Mr. Houghton, the Signature's founder smartly gives the actors free reign to talk as if they were sitting around an ordinary room. The changes they have to cope with are underscored by the changing function of the house where the play takes place -- first a home; then a private hospital where people came to be healed or have babies; finally, death's waiting room, a nursing home with its air thickened by memories of people already dead. Christine Jones' set design is particularly noteworthy for paying as careful attention to small exterior details as Mr. Foote does to interior lives of his characters.
Our review of another Foote family affair: When They Speak Of Rita, starring Hallie Foote, written by her sister Daisy and directed by their father.
Our review of Horton Foote's last Broadway play: Young Man From Atlanta Our book review of
Shop Talk which includes an interview with Horton Foote
Our reviewe of the first of the Signature's All-Premiere celebration season of past playwrights in residence: A Lesson Before Dying/ by Romulus Linney.