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A CurtainUp Review
The Traveling Lady

If I had my life to live over again I'd learn to dance. I swear my whole life would have been different if I'd just learned to dance --- Sitter, the old maid who's been too bound up with her mother to allow herself to experience so many of life's pleasures.

How often in Texas have I heard those idioms, localisms and voluble outbursts and that ranging vocabulary in The 'Traveling Lady!' it all belongs mostly to plain people and people who lived largely in plain towns and circumstances that were all their owned and that belonged to themselves and their region. Their speech tended to be alive, unselfconscious and rural. As for Horton Foote's dialogue there is everywhere present a kind of elusive and glowing accuracy. And there is never any sense of arch intention or any sign of the playwright's coquetting with quaintness. --- Stark Young in his Foreword to publication of The Traveling Lady, March 1955.

Lynn Cohen  Margot White and Quincy Confoy in <i>The Traveling Lady</i>
Lynn Cohen, Margot White and Quincy Confoy in 'The Traveling Lady
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
I can't tell you what's different about this revival of Horton Foote's delicate The Traveling Lady from its brief 1954 New York run. Most likely it's been trimmed. In any event, its arrival at EST (Ensemble Studio Theater) to celebrate Foote's 90th birthday is cause for rejoicing and acknowledging our indebtedness to Baylor University, which is the co-presenter, for giving it new life. This play with its rich roles for four older actresses, is very much like a fine old wine that has aged well.

As you enter the 99-seat theater, you immediately know you're in Foote country -- the shingled house with its front porch where the citizens of Harrison, Texas will gather to give us a glimpse of the by-gone small town life (in Mr. Foote's part of Texas the erosion was the result of cotton being replaced by oil). While he himself has lived far from his beloved Texas, he's kept the people he knew there alive with a whole cycle of quiet homespun plays in which nothing seems to happen, but everything pertaining to the human condition does.

The title character of this delicate and beautifully staged and performed revival is a stranger from another small town whose own life is at a critical crossroad, and whose arrival stirs up a host of memories and regrets among Harrison's citizenry. It's a typical Foote set up to reveal the dark undertones that are as much a part of these lives as the more tranquil and uneventful surface.

The time, as in Foote's A Trip to Bountiful, which has been enjoying a much extended run at the Signature Theater, is the early 1950s. Georgette Thomas (Margot White) -- Mrs. Henry Thomas -- has come to Harrison with the young daughter Margaret Rose (Quincy Confoy) who she's named after her dead mama and her favorite flower. They're to meet her husband Henry (Jamie Bennett), a Harrison boy she met when he and the band he played with played at a dance in her nearby hometown. They only had six months together before trouble landed him in the penitentiary where pride wouldn't let her and their little girl visit him. Though Georgette arrives in Harrison a week ahead of their scheduled reunion, it turns out that he was paroled a month ago and has been working for Harrison's chief do-gooder, Mrs. Tillman (Alice McLane), purportedly to have a little nest egg for them to start their renewed life together.

It turns out that Georgette's arrival coincides with the burial of Kate Dawson, the woman who raised Henry with more whippings than warmth. This dual set-up for this troubled reunion -- the funeral and the specter it raises of the cause for Henry's troubled psyche -- could easily be forced and melodramatic in any other playwright's hands. But Foote, as always, weaves it all with graceful ease into a variegated landscape with believable and emotionally engaging characters.

Georgette's desperate journey to begin a new life with the husband she barely knows and the continuation of her traveling that mark the drama's climax, plays out on the front porch of the house Clara Breedlove (Rochelle Oliver) shares with her younger brother Slim (Stan Denman), a gentle cotton buyer with a heart of gold -- a heart that remains broken from the blow of being rejected by his wife, even on her deathbed.

Despite Slim and his sister's kindness to Georgette, and the equally friendly welcome from Judge Robedaux (Frank Giradeau) and their neighbor Sitter Mavis (Carol Goodheart), no one can stave off the tragedy of Henry Thomas' incorrigible penchant for trouble -- though Slim's reawakened capacity for love lays the groundwork for a bittersweet ending.

The production is sensitively directed by Marion Castleberry and the cast, though none with names that are likely to ring an instant bell, perform with an acute awareness of Mr. Foote's rhythms. Margot White brings a wonderful fragility to Georgette (the role played in the 1954 New York production by Kim Stanley), the big smile that seems almost etched onto her face and the flutter of her hands never quite hiding the anxious anticipation of bad news. The four older actresses beautifully delineate the personality differences of their characters. Lynn Cohen (whom you may recognize as Golda Meir in the film Munich) is especially memorable and quite funny as Sitter's wacky mother. Young Quincy Confoy is adorable but without being a juvenile scene stealer.

While Stan Denman's is likeable and just the sort of man you would wish to accompany Georgette on the next lap of her journey, Jamie Bernnett is less convincing as the unreliable Henry Thomas. He lacks the physical presence and charismatic charm that would have made him irresistible to Georgette, and his highly emotional please forgive me-- I can't help myself is the only somewhat off note struck in an otherwise perfect little gem.

The production values -- set, lighting, costumes and sound -- all enhance the authenticity of this well worth seeing revival by one of the American theater's true treasures. Don't miss it, or if you haven't yet seen it, A Trip to Bountiful. You might also want to check out our recently posted Horton Foote page.

Playwright: Horton Foote
Directed by Marion Castleberry
Cast: Lynn Cohen (Mrs. Mavis), Stan Denman (Slim Murray), Frank Girardeau (Judge Robedaux), Margo White (Georgette Thomas), Carol Goodheart(Sitter Mavis), Rochelle Oliver (Clara Breedlove), Alice McLane (Mrs. Tillman), Jamie Bennett (Henry Thomas), Matthew Conlon (Henry Thomas), Quincy Confoy (Margaret Rose).
Set Design: Maruti Evans.
Costume Design: Maggie Lee-Burdorff
Lighting Design: Jason Jeunnette
Sound Design: Graham Johnson
Running time: 90 minutes
Ensemble Studio Theatre (E.S.T.) in association with Baylor University, 549 West 52nd Street (10th/11th Avenues) 212-352-3101
From 3/01/06 to 3/19/06; opening 3/06/06
Tickets: $18

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/05/06 performance
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