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Primary Stages highlights his knack for rich female characters
Horton Foote has a way with women -- or at least his women characters.
Think of Kim Stanley in The Chase, Shirley Knight in The Young Man from Atlanta, Hallie Foote in Dividing the Estate, Betty Buckley in Old Friends, Estelle Parsons in The Day Emily Married or any of the actors playing Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, starting with Lillian Gish, and continuing with Geraldine Page, Lois Smith, and Cicely Tyson.
"You learn about these women by the way they are with one another," says Harriet Harris, who is playing the role of Vonnie Hayhurst in the Primary Stages revival of Foote's The Roads to Home. (The show, which is being staged as part of a Horton Foote centennial celebration, runs through November 27 at the Cherry Lane Theatre.)
Set in Texas in 1924, the play follows Vonnie and her neighbor Mabel Votaugh (Hallie Foote) as they befriend a young, distraught woman named Annie Gaye Long (Rebecca Brooksher). All three are lonely, and all three long for a happier past in the towns where they grew up. Through Foote's gentle writing, they find comfort from their troubled lives and marriages, at least for a time, in each other's company and in a mutual understanding of where circumstances have taken them.
"[In this play] he says, 'friends are the most precious things on earth'," says Harris, a Fort Worth, Texas native. "We see that importance with these women who want to be known, to have someone 'get' them. And the way you do that is by sharing stories they need to tell one another. But sometimes it's done without any lines, with just the way they look or listen."
She continues, "None of Horton's lines are merely a way for you to get your character from, say, the chair to the cupboard. It's really about something. It's just that it's not spelled out."
Harris says Foote's sensitivity to women in search of a place to call home reminds her of Tennessee Williams, one of his peers and friends. Williams, she notes, "talks about 'these birdlike women without a nest.'"
Michael Wilson, who has directed many of Foote's works, including this revival of The Roads to Home, says the playwright may have had a particular sensitivity to the voices of women because "his mother and grandmother were a huge influence on him. His grandmother's house was contiguous to his own growing up in Wharton, Texas, and she actually came to live with Horton when he left Texas to study acting in Pasadena. He was very close to his Aunt Laura, too – his mother's sister – and he spent an enormous amount of time watching them and listening to their stories. He saw there was a special bond among them that the men in their lives accept but don't really understand."
Though there's plenty of drama in these women's lives, Wilson adds that "Horton finds it in a quieter way, writing with such a subtlety that he lets the audience discover it. It's not declamatory; it's not obvious. There's such a gentility to a lot of his characters."
Underneath this reserve, of course, there is also a remarkable playwriting craft. "His ear for dialogue is extraordinary," Wilson says. "In rehearsal if you're just a word or two off it can throw you. It looks like the language is very ordinary, but it has its own poetry. And if you mix up the words just slightly you lose the music."
The director points out that when Foote arrived in New York in the early '40s, he studied with Russian theatre artists who were very much influenced by Chekhov. (Foote passed away in 2009, at the age of 92.) "I think Chekhov's wonderfully subtle observation of human life may have given Horton the confidence to stay true to the life he saw in the east coast of Texas," Wilson says. "[He stayed true] without feeling like he had to force it, especially with the lives of these women."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Roads to Home. Go here to browse our current discounts for theatre, dance, and concerts.