Texas native Horton Foote was a contemporary of Tennessee Williams, though he outlived the Mississippi-born playwright by more than a quarter century. In a long career, Foote—like Williams—channeled voices of small-town eccentrics in dramas depicting the region where he spent his formative years. Five such eccentrics, embodied by top-flight character actors giving memorable supporting performances, rescue the otherwise anodyne revival of Foote’s The Traveling Lady, presented by Cherry Lane Theatre and La Femme Theatre Productions, and make it worth an evening’s time.
The title of Foote’s melancholy (and melodramatic) comedy-drama refers to Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty), an unworldly soul whose travels bring her to Harrison, Texas, the little town where her jailbird husband grew up. Six years ago, when Georgette was newlywed and pregnant, spouse Henry (PS Sosko) landed in prison for an act of drunken violence. With Henry serving a long sentence, Georgette has been toiling as a waitress and paying a lawyer to arrange a pardon. Now she and daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow) have pulled up roots and made their way to Harrison for a happily-ever-after reunion with Henry as he returns to freedom. What follows includes some big surprises for poor Georgette; but it’s likely to strike contemporary audiences as bland.
At the center of The Traveling Lady are Lichty (a cofounder of La Femme) and leading men Sosko and Larry Bull (as deputy sheriff Slim Murray). They’re enacting a dreary story with an upbeat outcome. That saccharine ending, tailored to the expectations of postwar Broadway, seems pat and inauthentic now. Lichty, Sosko, and Bull are more than adequate in their roles but never manage to make these characters’ triangular relationship or the plot’s resolution compelling. As Slim’s nosy sister Miss Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi) points out, real-world odds favor a darker end for Georgette than the generous-hearted Foote gives her.
“What ... becomes of women like that?” asks Miss Clara rhetorically. “I’ve seen her kind so many times in town on Saturdays coming in to buy what they can with what they have left over from their husband’s drinking. Old before their time, stooped and bent from overwork. Wasting their youth. Sitting around ... waiting for some old man to change, that probably couldn’t change if he wanted to, until they have a house full of kids, and at forty look like old women.”
The Traveling Lady is directed by Austin Pendleton and features high-caliber design by Harry Feiner (setting and lights), Theresa Squire (costumes), and Ryan Rumery (sound and original music). Pendleton has overseen first-rate Off-Broadway productions—most notably a series of Chekhov revivals at Classic Stage Company in the East Village. The current production, with its lumbering pace and disruptive entrances and exits up and down the central aisle of the theater, lacks the thrust and economy of Pendleton’s more distinguished work. Yet there are sequences in which his direction picks up speed with exhilarating effect; and, at those junctures, spectators may be reminded of high points in later (and better) Foote plays, such as Dividing the Estate.
Pendleton’s ace in the hole is the Greek chorus of five seasoned supporting players who truly understand Foote’s rural eccentrics and play them to the hilt. In addition to Fiordellisi, they are Karen Ziemba as a clueless gossip, Lynn Cohen as her high-maintenance mother, neighborhood know-it-all Jill Tanner, and local aristocrat George Morfogen. Their comic timing and colorful line readings add the piquancy, missing in other scenes, that this kind of regional comedy-drama requires.
The Traveling Lady is a minor item in Foote’s voluminous oeuvre. It premiered on Broadway in 1954, with Kim Stanley, a revered member of the Actors Studio, in the title role. Two seasons before, Stanley had been the kid sister in William Inge’s tremendously popular Picnic. Since Foote was exploring similar hick-town terrain as in Inge’s hit play, Stanley must have seemed a natural choice to those casting The Traveling Lady. Then at an early stage in his playwriting career, Foote couldn’t hold a candle to Inge; and The Traveling Lady lacks the sexually-charged intensity that made Picnic explosive for audiences of the early 1950s.
Foote, who died in 2009 (10 days short of his ninety-third birthday), revised The Traveling Lady in the last decade of his life. Even with Foote’s late-career revisions, the play feels clunky and old-fashioned—it probably seemed sweetly dated even back in 1954. But with those five eccentrics, so beautifully played in the current revival, Foote offers timeless insight about human nature and the circus of small-town life.
The Traveling Lady plays through July 30 at the Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce St.). Evening performances through June 24 are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are 2 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. From June 28 to July 16, evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 (toll free) or visit https://web.ovationtix.com.