Review by Kathleen CampionIt’s 1950 in a Texas backwater. Of course it’s always 1950-something in a Texas backwater in a Horton Foote script. The Traveling Lady, currently on offer at the Cherry Lane, has the feel of an old slipper; worn, whiffy, if endearingly reliable, and wildly predictable. We know these characters, having met them, or versions of them, in most of the Foote oeuvres we have all grown up with.
So, what’s the reason to hustle downtown to go there, again? In this case, it comes down to the acting.
First steps on stage? The tiny dervish of an actor Lynn Cohen playing Mrs. Mavis. She’s a bit mad; she hears some of those around her, ignores others. She’s escaped her daughter’s scrutiny and sits scowling and eating figs in her neighbor’s garden.
Slim (Larry Bull) gently escorts a fragile Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen) down the center aisle and slowly up the stairs stage left and settles him beside Mrs. Mavis in the garden to begin to set the scene.
As the characters “visit” in the southern sense of the verb, they speculate about that morning’s funeral and burial of Miss Kate — the good and bad of her. She raised that boy, Henry Thomas (PJ Sosko) but, my, she did beat him so. We learn Slim’s now-dead wife has left in him an open wound. The strapping Larry Bull plays Slim with a charming shyness. Morfogen’s Judge is a worn volume of rights and wrongs, secrets kept, and small town aphorisms. Sosko’s Henry is an edgy mess, beguiling and chaotic by turns.
The urgent young woman arrives from the bus station with a clinging child in tow — Mrs. Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) and little Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow). They’ve come to town to reconnect with her long estranged husband, Henry. She wants the judge to help her find a house in which the small family can reunite. Lichty’s puts an optimistic veneer on her Georgette but she gives you a peek at the spidery cracks so near the surface. Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi) is one of Foote’s Valkyries in a homespun dress. Fiordellisi has all the power she needs. Jill Tanner plays the good woman (Mrs. Tillman) who’s trying to rescue Henry from his demons. Tanner plays her smug and has some fun with her inevitable betrayal. Finally Karen Ziemba imbues her Sitter Mavis, the gossipy neighbor who always means well, with a fluttery, forced femininity that is at once comic and sad.
So, those are the bones, and, in his folksy familiarity, Foote exposes all the raw spots incrementally. In the end, the bad are not so much bad as they are weak. The sanctimonious are chastened. The good solid woman at the center of the piece, Clara Breedlove remains the compassionate truth teller.
Difficult to say how much of the authenticity of the acting magic is owing to the director (Austin Pendleton) and how much to the craft and alchemy of the polished actors. Theater people are always quick to share that credit. On the mechanical side of moving people around with purpose, Pendleton conjured two grace notes. Leading Judge Robedaux up the center aisle and seating him center stage only to be ignored by Mrs. Mavis feels just right. Pendleton relies on the aisle to stretch the stage — sending the child up and down to break the adult conversations with her entrances and exits — to advantage.
The Cherry Lane does more with less than any shop in town. A very modest stage becomes a most convincing garden with — in our imaginations — two to three surrounding houses, not to mention some imposing Chinaberry trees. That would be Harry Feiner’s work. Teresa Squire’s costumes are spot on; you can feel the wear in the cotton.
There’s nothing wrong with The Traveling Lady but there is little bite to it, little memorable about it, nothing surprising to take away. If you like Horton Foote, you will probably like this one.
The Traveling Lady – By Horton Foote; directed by Austin Pendleton.
WITH: Lynn Cohen (Mrs. Mavis), Larry Bull (Slim Murray), George Morfogen (Judge Robedaux), Jean Lichty (Georgette Thomas), Korinne Tetlow (Margaret Rose), Angelina Fiordellisi (Clara Breedlove), Karen Ziemba (Sitter Mavis), Jill Tanner (Mrs. Tillman), PJ Sosko (Henry Thomas), Ron Piretti (Sheriff).
Designed by Harry Feiner; costumes by Teresa Squire; sound by Ryan Rumery. Presented by Cherry Lane Theatre and La Femme Theater Productions. At the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, Manhattan, through July 16. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes no intermission.