The Roads to Home: A Gentile Distraction by Foote
Awash in gentile southern enchantment, the ladies of The Roads to Home hold us in easy rapture as we settle in for some good old Horton Foote charm. Just what the doctor ordered after the sad and shocking election outcome. It’s an easy going thought-diverting evening that reminds us of Foote’s unique ability to show us the simple daily yarn and how, for these women, all roads and memories do lead to their hometown. Southern charm permeates the walls of the Cherry Lane Theater, taking us away from all things current, sweeping us gently away into the 1920’s. We find ourselves in the towns of Houston, Austin, but most importantly, Harrison, Texas, the fictionalized version of Foote’s own hometown of Wharton , Texas. He invites us into the warm and generous home of a Houston housewife, but also envelopes us with the longing of the towns of their youth.
Directed by Michael Wilson, this meandering triptych of short plays takes us back to those places and memories with such love and affection; almost as much as these ladies love to reminisce. The Roads to Home feature the wonderful Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, in the first two short plays that make up Act One. She is gracing us with what she does best, playing Mabel Votaugh, the Houston housewife of Jack (a simple and authentic performance by Devon Abner). The first play, ‘A Nightingale‘, gossip and chatter take center stage when the magnificent Harriet Harris, as her next-door neighbor, Vonnie Hayhurst, stops by for coffee. They chat about the towns and the social lives they left behind in small town Harrison, Texas and Vonnie’s Monroe, Louisiana. All the while, waiting for the possible arrival of another Harrison native, Annie Gayle Long (a sweet Rebecca Brooksher). Annie walks a shaky path through her tragic memories fluctuating from coherent to slightly insane until her husband (Dan Bittner) is finally summoned to send her back home. These two ladies seem to take it with a kind heart and a gentle word, trying to keep the connection to reality in order, and the story intact all while sipping coffee in Mabel’s sweet homey kitchen (lovely work by Jeff Cowie:set design, David C. Woolard:costume design, David Lander: lighting design) .
Happily, the second play of Act One keeps us connected to these two next door neighbors, Mabel and Vonnie, in the simple titled play, ‘The Dearest of Friends‘. Vonnie’s world is changing just like Houston is growing and advancing. She comes to Mabel and Jack’s living room for comfort and care when she learns that her husband, Eddie (a fine Matt Sullivan) wants to divorce her for a woman he met on the train. This time the talk of a train ride is less about a nostalgic road trip home, but a ride into the modern age of adultery. These two best friends now have to deal with a world that doesn’t resemble the one they love to remember and find comfort in. Foote truly shines in this short play, as her outrage boils over and we see the many layers of this complex woman. It’s a magnificent performance, and we love her more and more with each spark she ignites.
Act Two brings us back to the damaged Annie, who years ago was sent to an Austin insane asylum. She sits in a lovely garden the night of the ‘Spring Dance‘ with a few fellow patients. It’s a sentimental and sad piece as we watch these characters, many of them old childhood friends from their hometown of Harrison, struggle to stay calm, as time seems to be passing by. The State Lunatic Asylum in the 1920’s cared for the mentally ill with the gentle treatment of manicured lawns, cordial dances, and weekly concerts. History tells us that Hallie Foote played this part in 1992, and one can only imagine the delicate and detailed portrayal she must have given, and Brooksher does a good job keeping us emotionally engaged, but I can’t say I was as thoroughly emeshed in this nostalgic piece as I was with Mable and Vonnie. These two best friends had me exactly where they wanted, and I was left wishing to be invited in for a chat and a coffee.
In these troubling times that we currently find ourselves in, and about to experience, returning to Horton Foote’s chronicle of America is a sweet escape. Even though in The Roads to Home, we know that the world wasn’t as gentile and kind as Foote had written, we can find comfort in their chatter. Within Foote’s America, we begin to see a shift to the more complex world ahead, from the cotton farms and Baptist churches of Harrison to divorce and insanity in the bigger cities of Texas. But I found it all very soothing. I was given a reprieve from the future that lies ahead of our changing times. Just as these ladies hold on to their rose tinted past, we might find ourselves doing the same in the years ahead. These three simplistic plays though, are still a wonderful treatment for the crazy world we live in.