With the new production of Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady,” we are back on familiar Foote territory. The play, about a woman hoping to reunite with a husband recently released from prison, takes place entirely on a back porch in Harrison, Texas, the small town Foote created as a stand-in for his actual hometown of Wharton, Texas. That’s where the playwright was born in 1916, a year after Arthur Miller and five years after Tennessee Williams. Foote’s centennial passed far more quietly than those of his contemporaries. Eight years after his death, he is still primarily known for his film adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and for his original screenplay for “Tender Mercies,” both of which won him Academy Awards. But his reputation as a dramatist has been increasing, thanks to such champions as Michael Wilson, who directed both the ambitious epic “The Orphans Home Cycle” in 2010 — a marathon of nine of Foote’s Harrison plays – and the much acclaimed revival of “The Trip to Bountiful” on Broadway in 2013, with a cast that featured Cicely Tyson.
Like those plays – and much of the rest of the body of Foote’s work, which numbers some 60 dramas — “The Traveling Lady” is poignant, gently amusing, and peopled with believable small-town characters who struggle and strive to be decent, not always successfully.
It is 1950, and the traveling lady of the title, Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) has traveled to Harrison, the hometown of her husband Henry Thomas (PJ Sosko), in hopes of establishing a home for their seven-year-old daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), whom Henry has never met, and for Henry himself, who is soon to be released from prison. Georgette and Henry were married for a mere six months when his drunkenness led to a violent scuffle and incarceration. Georgette worked hard for his pardon. What she doesn’t know – what the townsfolk reveal to her – is that Henry was released a month earlier and has been working for Mrs. Tillman, a widow and temperance crusader ( Jill Tanner) who sees herself as saving him from drink. That Henry lied to his wife is not a good sign, and sure enough, after a tepid reunion, Henry…relapses.
This quick synopsis is somewhat misleading, since it doesn’t take account of all ten characters, nor the complex interplay among them. To portray this collection of deceptively low-key personalities in the production at the Cherry Lane, director Austin Pendleton has assembled a cast that includes some starry New York performers such as Karen Ziemba, most known for her roles in Broadway musicals. The audience gives a knowing laugh when, as the home-spun Sitter, she says: “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.” As Sitter’s mischievous mother Mrs. Mavis, Lynn Cohen gives a memorable performance, reprising a role she undertook in a 2006 revival of the play.
I have to admit that “The Traveling Lady” didn’t really kick in for me until the last third of the play, when it becomes clear that Slim, widower and deputy sheriff (Larry Bull), has taken a hankering towards Georgette but is too shy to declare himself.
“The Traveling Lady” debuted on Broadway in 1954, where it ran little more than three weeks. Like much of Foote’s work, it’s been given a second look – deservedly so. 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.
The Traveling Lady
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Harry Feiner, Scenic and Lighting Design; Theresa Squire, Costume Design; Ryan Rumery, Sound Design and Original Compositions; Paul Huntley, Wig Design; Amy Stoller, Dialect Design and Dramaturg.
Cast: Larry Bull as Slim, Lynn Cohen as Mrs. Mavis, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jean Lichty, George Morfogen, Ron Piretti, PJ Sosko, Jill Tanner, Korinne Tetlow, and Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
The Traveling Lady is sc