02 July 2017

'The Traveling Lady'

Diana, my usual theater companion, and I went into Greenwich Village last night to see the Cherry Lane Theatre’s revival of Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady, a 1954 play.  Some readers may know the play from the 1965 Columbia Pictures film adaptation, Baby the Rain Must Fall, which starred Steve McQueen and Lee Remick.  Otherwise, it’s pretty obscure, I think.  Like Roads to Home, which we saw at the Cherry Lane back in October (see my report, posted on ROT on 22 October 2016), Traveling Lady is part of the celebration of Foote’s 100th birthday last year.  The production is also the second of the Cherry Lane’s Founder’s Projects, a collaboration with “mature theater-makers” who have “helped shape Off-Broadway.”  (The first Founder’s Project was last year’s production of Israel Horovitz’s Out of the Mouths of Babes.)  A coproduction of CLT and La Femme Theatre Productions, the revival started performances on 7 June and officially opened on 22 June; Traveling Lady was supposed to close on 16 July, but it was extended two weeks and will now run through 30 July.  Diana and I saw the 7 p.m. performance on Friday, 23 June, the evening after opening.

La Femme Theatre Productions, as the name suggests, focuses on plays “with significant roles for women.”  Founded in 2013 (incorporated in 2015) by Jean Lichty, who plays the female lead here; Austin Pendleton, who directs this revival; and Robert Dohmen, a businessman and benefactor of theater, past La Femme productions have included Ingmar Bergman’s Nora (an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, co-produced with CLT, 2015), Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets (associate producer with the Peccadillo Theater Company; Drama Desk nominee, 2015), and William Inge’s A Loss of Roses (co-produced with Peccadillo; Wall Street Journal’s Best Theater of 2014).  (For a brief profile of the Cherry Lane Theatre, see my Roads to Home report.)

The première of The Traveling Lady was presented by the Playwright’s Company at Broadway’s Playhouse Theatre (137 W. 48th Street) in 1954—for just 30 performances.  Directed by Vincent J. Donehue, it starred Kim Stanley as Georgette Thomas and Jack (“Book ’im, Danno”) Lord as Slim Murray.  The first New York revival of Traveling Lady, reduced by Foote from a three-act play to a one-act, was staged by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2006, in association with Baylor University of Waco, Texas (where the production was born in 2004 as part of the university’s Horton Foote festival).  It had a professional New York cast but was staged by the Baylor University theater director.  In 1957, Robert Mulligan directed an abridged adaptation of the play for live television on CBS’s Studio One in Hollywood with Stanley repeating her lauded Broadway role, Robert Loggia as Henry, and Steven Hill as Slim (available on YouTube); Stanley repeated her performance in 1958 for Armchair Theatre on ABC.  The Columbia Pictures film Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), based on The Travelling Lady, was also directed by Mulligan with Steve McQueen as Henry Thomas, Don Murray as Slim, and Lee Remick as Georgette.  (The report on The Roads to Home includes a bio sketch of the playwright.)

The story of The Traveling Lady takes place in the small town of Harrison, Texas, in 1950.  Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty, founder of La Femme), the title character, and Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), her small daughter, arrive in the back yard of Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi, artistic director of CLT) looking for a house to rent from Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen).  Georgette expects to be meeting her husband, Henry (PJ Sosko), who, she believes, is about to be released from the state penitentiary in Huntsville.  During the six years of Henry’s imprisonment, Georgette had worked and saved to obtain the money to help her husband obtain a pardon, and now she’s in Harrison, where Henry grew up and where people remember him, to wait for him to join her and their daughter.  She quickly learns Henry’s been free for a month and working for Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner), a neighbor of Clara’s.

Slim Murray (Larry Bull), Clara’s brother and a widowed deputy sheriff who had an unhappy marriage, swiftly becomes very fond of Georgette and little Margaret Rose, and offers to go look for Henry.  When Henry finally appears, he suggests he go look for a house for the little family and after greeting his wife (with a handshake!) and the daughter he’s never seen—he and Georgette were married only six months when he was jailed for killing a man in a drunken fight—he disappears again, deserting Georgette and Margaret Rose.  As hours pass and Henry doesn’t return, Slim once again goes in search of him.

Mrs. Tillman, a temperance activist who befriended Henry and weaned him off drink, rushes in in tears, reporting that Henry has gotten drunk and robbed her of cash, her silverware, and a black “traveling bag.”  He’s made an attempt to skip town with the bag of loot, but when Mrs. Mavis (Lynn Cohen, who played the role in the 2006 Off-Broadway revival), the aged (and decidedly dotty) mother of Clara’s neighbor Sitter (Karen Ziemba), spots Henry on the lam and  grabs his bag, the thief follows the old lady back to Clara’s yard where he’s confronted by Slim and captured.  Slim turns Henry over to the Sheriff (Ron Piretti), but when the thief asks to say goodbye to his wife and daughter, Slim and the Sheriff inexplicably drive him out to Clara’s house—and then remove his handcuffs.  As you probably can guess, instead of embracing Georgette and Margaret Rose, he runs off with the sheriff in pursuit.  Georgette realizes that she can’t stick with her husband and decides to leave Harrison on a bus for the coast, where a boom means there are jobs available.  Slim, meanwhile, has taken a new job—he’s suffered a little from wanderlust ever since his wife died and can’t stay put for long—managing a cotton gin in “the Valley.”  He confesses to Georgette that he’s already in love with her and suggests she and Margaret Rose ride with him and find work in the Rio Grande Valley instead.  With little prodding, she decides to take Slim up on his offer.

Foote’s romanticized tale of starting over and second chances runs an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes.  At its center is Foote’s perpetual theme of yearning for home, whether a character’s familiar one from his past or a new one in which she can start over.  At the same time, Traveling Lady is a snapshot of a time (the middle of the 20th century) and place (small town Texas Gulf coast)—originally written while it was still extant, but now aglow with nostalgia and the scent of chinaberry blossoms and the flicker of fireflies.  The feeling that the playwright actually knew all of these people is palpable.

The Traveling Lady is decidedly not one of the playwright’s best works, but it has a lot of his signature bits in it.  For one thing, it’s set in Harrison, Texas, the fictional stand-in for Foote’s hometown of Wharton.  There are also some stories told, a hallmark of Foote’s dramaturgy, many of them providing atmosphere of the time and place without being directly pertinent to the plot.  (One or two relate background of Henry’s youth in Harrison.  The play opens while the funeral of the woman who raised him is going on in the cemetery across from Clara’s back yard; Henry was at the burial.)  All the characters except Georgette and her daughter are long-time friends or acquaintances; they come and go to each other’s houses and yards as if they all lived together in some South Texas commune.  Mrs. Mavis goes just about anywhere she pleases—with Sitter shouting after her.  (That’s another of Foote’s signatures: eccentrics and the tetched are treated as part of the environment.)  Just when the plot sends someone off to look for another character, she or he magically shows up.  Or vice versa: a character wanders in just before someone else  enters looking for him or her.  (An alternative title for the play might be Everybody Comes to Clara’s.  “Of all the backyards in all the towns in all the world . . . .”)  It’s a neat little package—maybe too neat.   If it weren’t all so warm and human—sentimental, a detractor might say—it would come off as contrived.  But that’s all old-style Foote. 

Readers of this blog will know that the only review of a play I’m about to see that I read beforehand is in the New York Times.  If anyone read Jesse Green’s review on the day I went to the Cherry Lane, you got an idea about the production.  (I’ll summarize this review, like the others, in the last section of my report as usual.)  I’d say Green was harsher than the production deserves—though maybe not the play—but he’s always pretty hard on plays.  (He’s also a bit of a contrarian.)  In addition, he probably saw the play in a preview, which means it may not have been quite fully baked.  There were still line flubs on that second night (second-night slump?), but the acting was not bad—though not spectacular by any means, and not as good as Roads to Home, the Foote play Diana and I saw in October.  (Hallie Foote was in that, and you can’t beat her when it comes to playing her dad’s women!  Well, of course, she is one of her dad’s women, so to speak!)  I will say that 6-year-old Korinne Tetlow, who played the little girl—she gives her age in her bio—was perhaps the best actor in the cast.  She was perfect without being precocious.  

The production itself is adequate—a serviceable set by Harry Feiner (who also lit it) and perfectly appropriate costumes by Theresa Squire (with wigs by Paul Huntley—on whom I ran a Washington Post article in a post entitled “Two (Back) Stage Pros,” 30 June 2014).  Timesman Green described the set as “overstuffed” and “too literal” and on the Cherry Lane’s small stage, perhaps it seems that way (especially if the reviewer saw the show in previews and the actors weren’t used to the furniture yet, as he suggested), but I didn’t find it a serious problem.  Green also pointed out the backdrop of “receding telephone poles,” prairie grass, and mismatched street lamps, but that, too, seems routinely apt to me.  A touch of atmospheric realism was provided by Ryan Rumery’s sounds of far-off train whistles, music from the Mexican dance hall nearby, and the occasional tinkle of wind chimes.  (Rumery also composed the two tunes that Henry, a wannabe country singer, sings; Henry’s supposed to be an alluring singer, though Sosko doesn’t have the voice to make this credible.)  It all provides an environment for the acting, but never actually establishes a world for the play that’s more than merely generic.  I remember scenery from that same era, the ’50s, on Cape Cod that looked exactly like that! 

Pendleton’s directing also falls into the utilitarian category.  He moves the actors around the set to keep the play in some motion—as in many Foote plays, the characters tend to find places to sit and tell stories a lot, which can become static if the director doesn’t find reason to get them up now and then—but it’s not really revelatory movement (except for the one fight between Slim and Henry, choreographed by Ron Piretti, who also plays the Sheriff).  I also found Pendleton’s use  of the center aisle as an entrance and exit bothersome—it may have been necessary because of the Cherry Lane’s configuration (though none of the previous productions I’ve seen there needed to use it), but it didn’t fit the production’s otherwise lyrically realistic performance style.  While the blocking doesn’t descend to the level of unmotivated crosses—Pendleton’s too good for that—it’s hardly theatrically stimulating staging. 

Like most Foote plays (and many others I’ve seen this season), Traveling Lady has an ensemble cast.  Now, in an ensemble show, no one is supposed to stand out as a star performer, even when some roles, like Georgette, say, in Traveling Lady, are more central to the story than others.  That works fine in this production.  But there still should be a glimmer of individuality in each performance, a core of special humanity that makes each character glow and sparkle.  That was missing in the CLT/La Femme production.  Except, as I noted, for Korinne Tetlow’s Margaret Rose—probably because 6-year-olds still have that total belief in what they’re doing when they play-act—which is precisely why Uta Hagen warned about acting with children: they’ll upstage the adults every time.  I should also make note of addled old Mrs. Mavis, who’s so precisely drawn as to be perhaps actor-proof.  In any case, Lynn Cohen nails her Sophia Petrillo spikiness.  It’s something of a cliché now—the old woman who has no speech filter—but in 1954 . . . well, Golden Girls was still 30 years in the future.  No one does anything actually wrong, but the ensemble just never quite sparks to full-on life.  One consequence of this is that I had trouble keeping the three matrons in the cast—Angelina Fiordellisi’s Clara, Jill Tanner’s Mrs. Tillman, and Karen Ziemba’s Sitter Mavis—sorted out.

(Karen Ziemba as Sitter Mavis had some lines about not ever having learned to dance and how her life would have been better if only she had.  ROTters may remember that Ziemba won a Tony in 2000 for Contact, a dance play at Lincoln Center.  Amusing!  Beginning on 5 July, Ziemba will leave Traveling Lady to begin rehearsals for the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Prince of Broadway, opening in August at the Great White Way’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  She’ll be replaced by Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Annette O’Toole.)

Show-Score calculated an average score of 75 on the basis of 24 published reviews (as of 30 June).  The site’s highest score was 90 (five, including the Wall Street Journal, TheaterMania, and the Huffington Post), backed up by five 85’s; the low score was a single 45 (on Theater Pizzazz), the sole negative notice.  The reviews broke down into 67% positive, 29% mixed, and 4% negative.  My coverage will include 14 reviews.

Judd Hollander of Epoch Times dubbed Traveling Lady a “rather sweet slice of Americana” which reveals “the easy camaraderie between the townspeople of Harrison, all of whom feel like old acquaintances.”  Hollander noted that “90 percent of [the play] has the characters sitting in Clara’s backyard talking, in a smooth, leisurely pace,” but caviled that “some of the scene transitions . . . feel a bit awkward.”  Nonetheless, “Feiner’s set design works quite well.”  The reviewer concluded, “Despite a few missteps, ‘The Traveling Lady’ is [quite] the pleasant experience, with the show offering a gently layered look at a time when the world moved a little slower.” 

In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout called the play “among the most tenderly poignant of the soft-spoken studies of small-town life in which Horton Foote specialized” and observed that it “has had its ups and downs—mostly the latter.”  Labeling the production a “lovely revival,” Teachout announced, “I feel certain that Mr. Foote himself would have delighted in the perfect stylistic unanimity of” the staging of Pendleton, “who has a knack for making smart things happen in small theaters.”  (“He’s done it again,” exults the WSJ reviewer.)  Pendleton “has staged ‘The Traveling Lady’ with a gentle understatement that draws you in before you know it,” reported Teachout, and the performers “exude a feeling of community so strong as to create the impression that they’ve known one another for years, maybe decades.”  They “are excellent without exception” and deliver “persuasive performances.”

The Times’ Green affirmed that the characterizations imbue Traveling Lady with “a tone as old-fashioned as it is heartbreaking,” largely because it’s “built on what people could not bring themselves to say” in contrast to the argumentativeness of “the dominant mode of stage realism today.”  “Quaint and baggy,” according to Green, The Traveling Lady “is no great drama,” especially in contrast to the contemporaneous The Trip to Bountiful (a report on a 2005 revival of which I posted on ROT on 25 May 2013).  As I indicated above,  Green also didn’t think the production is “great,” either, with “some of the play’s best qualities . . .  muddied by performances that seem shaky and flat.”  Nonetheless, the  play “still emerges as a lovely specimen of the form, in which hope and regret run neck and neck, and repression is honed to an oaken luster.”  Pendleton’s staging, however, “only intermittently achieves the paradoxical merger of vast emotion and delicate expression that Foote requires.”  Green noted that “to get the fullest pang out of Foote’s plays . . . you need a production that gets past the competencies of the scene-study class,” but lamented, “Perhaps it is an impossible task to prevent this play, with its interior dividedness, from imploding.”

Dan Callahan called The Traveling Lady “a piece of writing on a deliberately small scale” in the Village Voice, and asserted that “Pendleton has succeeded admirably by keeping his actors at a medium-rare level of intensity.”  The Voice reviewer complained that “Foote’s intention here seems somewhat overly concerned with explaining poor behavior and assorted other problems through bad parenting, a tendency symptomatic of a certain strain in Fifties writing for theater, film, and television” and (like several other review-writers) compared Lichty’s performance unfavorably with Kim Stanley’s. (This strikes me as somewhat unfair since, though Stanley’s 1957 TV Georgette is available on video, few of us ordinary mortals are likely to have seen it.)  In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer labeled The Traveling Lady a “sweet, slight comic drama” and reported that the production’s “atmospherics are perfect.”  He found, however, not “a lick of chemistry” between Bull’s Slim and Lichty’s Georgette.

Time Out New York’s Helen Shaw warned, “Horton Foote has a way of tiptoeing up on you”:

One moment, you’re feeling lulled and lazy by his plays’ drawling Texans, who are being all neighborly and living peaceful midcentury lives.  But as the play goes by, you’re suddenly awash in feeling: In his warm Chekhovian evenings, pain always arrives in Eden.

Calling La Femme’s production a “beautifully performed revival,” Shaw dubbed the play “a particularly well-shaped little jewel.”  The TONY reviewer asserted that Pendleton “has the most delicate directorial hands in the business” and paid lavish compliments to the cast.

James Wilson called Traveling Lady a “wistful play” with a “sense of movement and unrest” on Talkin’ Broadway and declared that Pendleton “has drawn some terrific performances from his ensemble.”  Despite an “exquisitely designed” set and individual performances that elicited high praise, however, Wilson found the play “somewhat heavy handed in its construction” and complained that “Pendleton undermines [that] atmospheric tranquility fairly regularly.”  (This reviewer, like me, found the entrances and exits through the auditorium “jarring.”)  Jonathan Mandell described the play as “poignant, gently amusing, and peopled with believable small-town characters who struggle and strive to be decent, not always successfully” on New York Theater, but admitted that “‘The Traveling Lady’ didn’t really kick in for me until the last third of the play” when the attraction between Georgette and Slim becomes clear.  As Mandell acknowledged, “If this production may have required more attentiveness than I was willing to give it, if it didn’t move me or amuse me as much I might have hoped, that may only be because Horton Foote is responsible for some of the best theater I’ve ever seen.”

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart labeled The Traveling Lady a “quietly powerful drama” and advised that “hyper-attentiveness is the best condition in which to take” it in.  “Under the sensitive and confident direction of Austin Pendleton,” asserted Stewart, “the play slowly cooks like a stew, its aroma wafting over the audience.”  The director, the TM reviewer said, “lets us come to the play” at our own pace, as “the text is delivered by this expert cast.”  Calling La Femme’s production an “excellent revival,” Stewart added, “Few directors can make a nearly 63-year-old play feel fresh and exciting quite the same way Pendleton can.”  He closed with this admonition: “It's the kind of theatrical magic you really have to experience firsthand.”  TheaterScene’s Darryl Reilly declared that The Traveling Lady has been “tenderly revived” with “wonderful performances and excellent staging” at the Cherry Lane Theatre.  In contrast to some of his colleagues in the critical dodge, Reilly found that the director “has inventively staged the play,” having “creatively utilized [the small space] with the actors perpetually making entrances and exits through the theater’s center aisle.”  The reviewer affirmed, “Mr. Pendleton’s keen direction injects insight, a measured pace and incites emotion, perfectly realizing Foote’s introspective vision.”  Reilly concluded his notice by acknowledging: “Though decidedly not a major play, this production is highly successful.”

Samuel L. Leiter, writing on Theater Pizzazz, characterized the play as “a bittersweet romantic piece,” but deemed the revival “a sleepy misfire.”  The production, according to Leiter, “moseys along oh so slowly” because “Foote’s plotting is minimal” and the castof first-class New York actors fails to find more in their roles than their obvious external features.”  The “burgeoning romance” of Slim and Georgette is predictable, which isn’t helped by the fact that “the flame between Lichty and Bull never ignites.”  Leiter finds the play “much harder than it looks” to stage, “requiring pitch-perfect casting, nuanced performances of still waters-run-deep characters; carefully calibrated timing and pacing; and expertly crafted staging.”  The TP reviewer lamented, “These qualities are just what director Austin Pendleton’s lethargic production fails to achieve.”  He found, “Rarely does the atmosphere rise to compellingly dramatic levels; rarely is there any tension; and rarely do we care what happens to any of these people.” 

Elyse Sommer declared on CurtainUp that Traveling Lady “has all the earmarks for an authentic and enjoyable trip to Foote Country” and provides “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.”  In a “handsomely staged and well-performed revival,” Pendleton has put together a cast that is “more than up to [the] challenge” of “dig[ging] into the rhythm of his words, and the personalities of [Foote’s] characters.”  Pendleton’s “direction . . . and the production values overall enhance and support” the play, even though the director “overdoes the use of the aisle for” entrances and exits.  On New York Theatre Guide, Kathleen Campion asserted that The Traveling Lady “has the feel of an old slipper; worn, whiffy, if endearingly reliable, and wildly predictable.”  It’s the acting, Campion reported, that’s the reason to see the Cherry Lane  production.  After individually praising each cast member, the NYTG reviewer concluded, “There’s nothing wrong with The Traveling Lady but there is little bite to it, little memorable about it, nothing surprising to take away.”  In the end, she suggested, “If you like Horton Foote, you will probably like this one.

The Huffington Post’s David Finkle dubbed the Cherry Lane’s Traveling Lady “one of those just-about-flawless revivals that Foote seems to invite,” presented “under Austin Pendleton’s reliably sympathetic and spanking-clean direction.”  With considerable praise for Foote and his dramaturgy and “his series of high-caliber works,” Finkle offered “hearty thanks” to the “strong cast” (with “a fond nod to Ziemba”). 

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