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When They Speak of Rita
By Les Gutman
By the time Horton Foote moved his family to New Hampshire in 1966, Peyton Place had already disabused New Yorkers of the notion that small New England towns are more innocent than big cities. Behind the white clapboard and Yankee veneer, there's enough dirt in those hamlets to fill countless gossip columns.
Daisy Foote, Horton's playwright daughter who spent much of her childhood in the Granite State, explores the rumblings in the heart of Rita Potter (Hallie Foote - yes this is very much a family affair: she's Daisy's sister, their father directs) while unveiling the not-very-well-kept secrets of (fictitious) Tremont, New Hampshire. When They Speak of Rita renders a nicely drawn portrait of this rural but contemporary woman, woven into the complex fabric of that supposedly simple life.
Rita cleans houses for a living. She'd like to do more; she's even tried. But her mostly milquetoast husband, Asa (Ken Marks), the county road agent until the newly-arrived "California Man" ran against him for re-relection, doesn't expect anything more of her, and neither does her 19 year old mechanic son, Warren (Jamie Bennett). Just turning 40, Rita's been married half her life, and despairs it's too late to make something of herself. She encourages Warren and his girlfriend/then wife Jeannie (Margot White) to get an education, but they've got making money and babies on their minds.
There's not a lot of suspense in this play. What little bit Daisy has left in the script, her father's direction telegraphs to us ASAP: we notice when Warren chooses beer over coffee once his father walks away; we observe the propogatious nature of the passion between Warren and Jeannie in their first scene alone together; most of all, we can't help but see the telling bond that's forming between Rita and her son's friend Jimmy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who spends more time at the kitchen table with her than he does out in the garage with his pal. She's feeding his belly but he's feeding her soul. Foote writes with integrity of the forces pulling on these seemingly ordinary lives -- alcohol, sex, education, devotion, self-esteem, male domination, genetics and the influx of outsiders who've made these locals strangers in their own town, and the end product is a work of surprising depth.
Mr. Foote draws satisfying performances from all of the actors, but none more than his daughter. A quiet storm looms behind her nagging wife and mother; she's stoic, dutiful, loving yet dismayed and guilty: proud but resigned, a practical dreamer. It's clear all of this contradiction is going to produce some sort of extreme reaction, but not the sort of violence that might occur in other families. This is a flawed but not pernicious marriage. Ken Marks discovers the source of Asa's reticence that is part Yankee reserve but mostly a consequence of just taking an awful lot for granted: a decent but imperfect man.
Warren and Jeannie share a more successfully functioning relationship, but there are nuanced signs of cracks in its foundation. Both Bennett and White plumb the layered characters Foote has created, and Moss-Bachrach's confused, youthful emotions as Jimmy are just right.
Primary Stages has a small stage that must seem like a nightmare to set designers, but Jeff Cowie rises to the challenge, inventively splitting his realistic set diagonally. Deborah Constantine's lights do a good job of setting time, as do Debra Stein's season-specific costumes.
What happens if a tree falls in the forest and there's nobody there? Ask Rita. There's still plenty of damage.