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The Traveling Lady

From Lovelady to Tyler, from Tyler to Harrison, from Harrison to the Valley. Margaret Rose, we sure do get around. — Georgette, the play's titular traveler, whose journey has taken her to as many emotional crossroads as small Texas towns.
The Traveling Lady
Lynn Cohen, Jean Lichty, Larry Bull and Karen Ziemba (Carol Rosegg)
It's hard to believe that Horton Foote, is no longer wth us. It seems like only yesterday that his 90th birthday was celebrated with productions of two of his plays from the early 1950s plays— The Trip to Bountiful and The Traveling Lady . But eleven years have indeed gone by; and the inveterate chronicler of life in the sleepy little town of Harrison, Texas has been gone almost as long.

Now, a new revival of The Traveling Lady, gives Foote's many fans a chance to travel back to his beloved Harrison, Texas. It's also an opportunity for young theater goers to experience Horton Foote's richly detailed portraits a long gone life styles in which deceptively uneventful lives explode with often startlingly dark memories with the arrival of an outsider and/or the return of a Harrison native.

As indicated by its very brief Broadway run, The Traveling Lady may not warrant a top ten spot in a list of Foote's sixty plays, but it has all the earmarks for an authentic and enjoyable trip to Foote Country. The large cast (no double casting, unless you count Ron Piretti double tasking in the small role as the town sheriff and also the production's fight director) is in itself a pleasure in this day of economically dictated tight casting.

True to Foote's frequently using the arrival of a stranger or returnee to set his plots in motion, the title character of this delicate, handsomely staged and well-performed revival is Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) who's come to Harrison with her young daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow)

Georgette is to meet her husband Henry (PJ Sosko), a Harrison boy she fell in love with when his band played at a dance in her nearby hometown. They married but had just six months together before alcohol and an act of violence landed him in the penitentiary.

The child she was left to raise on her own no doubt kept her stay in the marriage and use much of her wages to pay for a lawyer to get him paroled. They never saw each other since his pride kept her and the child from visiting him in jail. And so, as the play opens, they're essentially strangers. Yet, the plea for parole successful, and they've agreed to reunite in Henry's home town.

Since Georgette lost her job due to bad times in the town where she's been living she headed for Harrison with plans to find a house to rent before Henry arrives. As it turns out, Henry was actually paroled a month ago and has been working for Harrison's chief temperance advocate and do-gooder, Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner). The idea, at least as Henry would have everyone believe, is that he wanted to accumulate a little nest egg to get their renewed life together off to a good start.

So that's the big bump in the chances that this marriage will work out as planned. To conveniently stir Henry's back story into the mix , Georgette and Margaret Rose arrive just as the woman who raised Henry with more whippings than warmth is being buried.

Granted this is all a rather obvious way to make us understand what makes Henry tick and anticipate a climax that forces Georgette to continue her travels. But obvious and too melodramatic as all this sounds, it's the way Horton Foote could weave the specter of such coincidental events into an unforced, graceful tapestry of believable human beings that made him one of the modern theater's treasures.

Georgette's desperate journey to begin a stable and loving life with a man she barely knows plays out on the Clara Breedlove's (Angelina Fiordelisi) back porch where all these people tend to gather. Set as it is next to the town's graveyard it subtly symbolizes where everyone's journeys through life will ends.

It's on that communal porch that Georgette and Margaret Rose are first greeted by Clara, her younger brother Slim Murray (Larry Bull), Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen) and the spinster neighbor Sitter Mavis (Karen Ziemba) and her addled but feisty mother (Lynn Cohen). Though everyone is kind to her and the little girl, it's clear that no one can keep Henry Thomas from succumbing to his penchant for trouble.

But even with Foote's unique gift for authentically and naturally drawing us into a by-gone American experience, The Traveling Lady needs a director and actors able to dig into the rhythm of his words, and the personalities of his characters. Fortunately, director Austin Pendleton and the cast now at the Cherry Lane are more than up to that challenge.

The play now at the Cherry Lane is blessed to have one of the 2006 Baylor University production's actors on board. That's Lynn Cohen — now in her 80s she's better than ever as the gruff, addled old Mrs. Mavis who remembers everything that ever happened in the town. Happily she pops up quite often.

The play also has three meaty roles for middle aged female thespians, and these too are beautifully individualized. Veteran musical theater enthusiasts may find it something of a shock to see Karen Ziemba fit this category as Cohen's caretaking spinster daughter Sitter — especially, when we hear Ziemba, who won a Tony for her stunning dancing in Contact , declare "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."

The role of Judge Robedaux is played by another outstanding octogenarian, George Morfogen. He's on stage very briefly, but long enough to give an impressive performance and to hint at the darker side of the people we see and hear about.

The role of Georgette (created on Broadway by Kim Stanley, one of the many noted actors who are part of the Cherry Lane's history) is in good hands. Jean Lichty, who was an appealing Nora in another Austin Pendleton directed play — Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of A Doll's House which also featured Mr.Morfogen as Dr. Rank and Larry Bull as Krogstad — brings a just right aim to please smiles, fragility and survivor's backbone to the part. Korinne Tetlow, in her off-Broadway debut as Margaret Rose is cute but never cutesy or show-stealing.

As the charismatic loser Henry Thomas, PJ Sosko could use a tad more charisma make us buy into what charmed Georgette into staying true and devoted to him all these years. Actually, the big charmer here is Larry Bull's Slim. As he managed to make the disgraced lawyer in that Doll's House adaptaton more poignant than villainous, he is wonderfully endearing as the big, gentle man still devastated by his wife's leaving him, even though that was years ago and she's been dead a while. Somehow the play's bittersweet ending is neither hokey or contrived. How can it be when he's so undeniably the right man to accompany Georgette on the next lap of her journey.

Mr. Pendeleton overdoes the use of the aisle for the actors to enter and exit the stage a bit. However, his direction otherwise and the production values overall enhance and support this visit down Mr. Foote's very special and well worth visiting. memory lane.

For more about Horton Foote's life and career and links to other play by him reviewed at CurtainUp check out Foote's page in our Playwrights Album.

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The Traveling Lady by Horton Foote
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Cast: Larry Bull (Slim Murray), Lynn Cohen (Mrs. Mavis), Angelina Fiordellisi (Clara Breedlove), Korinne Tetlow (Margaret Rose), Jean Lichty(Georgette Thomas), George Morfogen (Judge Robedaux), Ron Piretti (Sheriff), PJ Sosko (Henry Thomas), Jill Tanner(Mrs. Tllman), Karen Ziemba (Sitter Marvin)
Scenic & Lighting Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Sound Design & Original Compositions: Ryan Rumery
Wig Design: Paul Huntley
Dialect Coach & Dramaturg: Amy Stoller
Fight Director: Ron Piretti
Stage Manager: Denise Wilcox
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission
Cherry Lane Theatre 38 Commerce St
From 6/07/17; opening 6/22/17; closing 7/16/17-extended to 7/30--with Annette O'Toole as Sitter.
Reviewed by Elyse sommer at June 20th press preview

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