Traveling Lady Checks In at Calderwood Pavilion
CFA stages Foote’s Texas-based drama of lost souls
Horton Foote has been called the American Chekhov. A Pulitzer-winning playwright, with more than 60 plays to his credit, and an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Foote is a master chronicler of small-town life. His best-known works, including The Trip to Bountiful, The Young Man from Atlanta (which brought him the Pulitzer), and the screenplays for Tender Mercies and Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird—set in Texas or the deep South—use a small lens to capture the universal human themes of loneliness, longing, redemption, and finding one’s way in the world.
The broad appeal and enduring timeliness of the works of the Texas native, who died in 2009, come from the fact that he was “a writer of stories about families, and we all have families,” says Sidney Friedman, a College of Fine Arts adjunct professor of dramatic literature and directing, who directs the CFA production of Foote’s The Traveling Lady, running through March 1 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Foote’s play, which premiered on Broadway in 1954 starring Kim Stanley, is set in the fictional town of Harrison, Tex., the locale for several of his works. There Georgette Thomas, played by Ellen Tamaki (CFA’14), and her small daughter arrive to set up house for themselves and Georgette’s husband, Henry, portrayed by Matt Dray (CFA’14). Henry, she believes, is about to be released from six years in the local penitentiary. A binge drinker serving time for his part in a brawl, Henry, it turns out, has already been free for some time—long enough to have fallen off the wagon and come under the watchful eye of pious, crusading local woman Clara Breedlove, being played by Olivia Haller (CFA’14). When he deserts his family and finds himself in deep trouble and facing arrest again, Georgette must decide whether to give up on him and return the affections of Slim Murray, played by Joey Heyworth (CFA’14), a local widower who becomes smitten with her.
“The first time I read this play I just fell in love with the characters, who are so vividly drawn and so interesting,” says Friedman, adding that he marvels at the playwright’s craftsmanship, sensitivity, and economy. He was also drawn to The Traveling Lady because Foote “writes sensitively about women,” and the director had been looking for a play with multiple strong female roles to suit the talents of School of Theatre performance majors. “We have more women than men in the school, and this play has six good women’s roles,” Friedman says. “Most produced playwrights historically have been men, and they tend to write about men for men.”
While the scenic design, by Arianna Knox (CFA’15), promises to be unexpected and “a little more adventuresome,” the production, he says, is “pretty straight ahead in terms of acting and the story.” Friedman hopes “people will be as drawn into the play,” as he is, for its “moments of humor and laughter, its moments of tears.” Much of what Foote does “is very quiet.” Unlike the burlesque, epic sprawl of the Thornton Wilder classic Skin of Our Teeth, the most recent CFA production directed by Friedman, Foote’s drama, he says, is more like “what happens when you drop a pebble into the water and the ripples move outward.”
One hallmark of Foote’s plays is music or dancing (or both). The CFA production will feature musical touches, including an offstage mariachi band and the evocative songs of the late country singer Patsy Cline. To effect the South Texas accents the play demands, the actors—not one from Texas—were coached by Christine Hamel. A CFA assistant professor of voice and speech, Hamel (CFA’05) has helped shape and perfect the mannerisms and accents for actors playing a broad range of characters, among them the cast of last year’s production of The Kite Runner, staged by the New Repertory Theater in Watertown. That play required actors to master Pashtun, Tajik, and Hazaras accents.
In a New York Times review of a 2006 revival, critic Charles Isherwood describes Foote’s play as “a delicately drawn portrait of an anxious spirit in search of home.” Although Foote is often thought of as a regional playwright with, as Isherwood puts it, “a peerless sense of place,” his themes hit a chord with all of us, Friedman says.
The College of Fine Arts production of The Traveling Lady runs at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, tonight through March 1, with curtain times Friday, February 21, and Saturday, February 22, at 8 p.m., Sunday, February 23, at 7 p.m., Tuesday, February 25, Wednesday, February 26, and Thursday, February 27, at 7:30 p.m., and Friday, February 28, and Saturday, March 1, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for the general public, $10 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, students, senior citizens, and groups of 10 or more. Members of the BU community can get one free ticket with BU ID at the door, the day of the performance, subject to availability. By public transportation, take an MBTA Green Line trolley to the Copley Square stop or the Orange Line to Back Bay. Purchase tickets here, call 617-933-8600, or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office.