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Scott's Theatre Beat: Harrison, Texas

August 2012

Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote,  Not Quite



Primary Stages has brought to the stage Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote. Unfortunately it is more like a one-act play and two sketches for one-act plays.  In fact, the Playbill has each of the "plays” listed as Acts. That being said, the cast does a superb job in bringing Foote’s idiosyncratic character’s to life and gracing us with the use of language that has not only surface but depth.  This is one of the hallmarks of Horton Foote’s writing.  There is a smoothness and richness to his dialogue that reveal more than the obvious in the interactions of the characters.  This quality is evident in these works but the craft of the spoken word still requires a framework on which to hang.  In this case the frameworks are not so strong.


Blind Date, the first presentation, is a humorous sketch about the matchmaking antics of Dolores Henry.  She is the wife of a prosperous attorney, a former beauty queen, and a self-styled conversationalist.  She is bound and determined to find a "man” for her teenager niece Sarah Nancy well played by Andrea Lynn Green.  Dolores, played beautifully by Hallie Foote, provides the guidance on how to carry-on a proper conversation with a young man.  She is so dedicated to the importance of good conversation that she has written practice questions for her niece to use as conversation starters. 


The sullen Sarah Nancy turns out to have a history of speaking her mind when it comes to young men, a history that has not brought her many dates.  In fact, she has managed to alienate all of the eligible young men in Harrison.  Felix (Even Jonigkeit), an insurance salesman, is the target of desperation that Dolores has set-up in a last-ditch effort to find a match for a Sarah Nancy.  All of these goings-on are watched  by Robert Henry, the husband of Dolores’ effectively played by Devon Abner, who expects his dinner to be ready when he returns home.  We see his exasperation when he realizes that he forgot to eat while he was in town and now Dolores is immersed in the match-making world and won’t make him dinner. 

In the end, all of Dolores’ well worked-out plans crumble before her eyes and she retreats to her bedroom and sleep.  As the curtain falls, Sarah Nancy and Felix are silently looking through Dolores’ old yearbooks. It is still possible that Dolores will succeed.  Blind Date leaves some critical loose ends and so, in the end, works better as a humorous sketch than as a play.


The One-Armed Man is a tense sketch that stands in sharp contrast to the humor of the preceding play. It is a study in the nature of class relationship, as they existed in Texas in the 1920s.  C.W. Rowe, solidly played by Jeremy Bobb, is the prosperous owner of a cotton gin who sees businessmen such as him, to be of a higher station than other people.  This attitude is at first directed towards his underpaid and in-debt bookkeeper Pinkey beautiful portrayed by Devon Abner.  After Rowe lectures Pinkey on the inferiority of those who owe money, another opportunity for Rowe to show his callowness towards workers appears in the form of McHenry (Alexander Cendese), a former employee who lost his arm in an accident with a piece of machinery in the cotton gin building.  McHenry, who has become mentally deranged as a result of the accident, has been pestering Rowe to give him his arm back.  Rowe offers him $5 a week to go away, as if this was fair compensation for McHenry’s loss.  In building this confrontation, Foote uses a tense verbal exchange between these two men trying to illustrate the disconnect between the have’s and the have not’s.  In the end, there is nowhere for the story to go leaving an unsatisfactory conclusion to a dramatic line that had potential.


The Midnight Caller takes place in the boarding house of Mrs. Crawford, a respectable and proper woman very well played by Hallie Foote.  The denizens of her house are three women who come from a variety of

backgrounds, and who bring to the house distinct ways of interacting with the world around them.  Alma Jean Jordan, played by Mary Bacon, with a clear understanding of the subtleties of the character, is a bitter middle aged spinster who is not afraid to let her feelings, about things in general, be known.  Jane Houdyshell plays the much older Miss Rowena Douglas, a teacher who has been an observer of the life trajectories of many of her students. She has only recently come to understand that she has been sitting on the porch watching everyone else’s lives take shape without giving shape to her own.  "Cutie” Spencer, sweetly played by Andrea Lynn Green, is the young, good-looking secretary, who is still learning about herself and the world around her. She has not been "wounded by life” as the other women have been. We learn that she thinks she is in-love with her boss, a married man, and so we know that she is in line for a life-lesson at some point.  She is the perfect counter-point to the bitterness of Alma Jean.


The comfortable world that these three women inhabit is about to receive a jarring change in the form of Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin), a local woman disowned by her mother over the relationship she had with Harvey Weems (Alexander Cendese), an alcoholic, whom her mother detests. The arrival of Helen is an especially upsetting event for Alma Jean, and she makes sure that everyone knows it.  Adding to the complications of Helen’s presence is another newcomer to the boardinghouse.  Ralph Johnston, ably played by Jeremy Bobb, is a businessman, divorced, and eligible, who is attracted to Helen but manages to give Alma Jean the impression that she is the object of his attention. 


As the comfortably, predictable world of Mrs. Crawford’s boarding house begins to settle, Harvey Weems shows up night after night, at midnight, crying for the love of his life Helen. He is so disruptive, and so regular, that the boarding house has begun to attract an audience of locals whom drive by watching for the antics of Harvey.  Although this story is the best constructed of the three, and whose dialogue is expertly handled by the cast, it still lacks a certain polish to bring better clarity to the story being told, and certainly to the ending.


Pam MacKinnon directs this assemblage with a gentleness and sensitivity to the characters, and to the dialogue. She brought together three distinctly different "plays” and allowed Horton Foote’s words to shine forth even when the structure of the plays faltered.  The sets, designed by Marion Williams, were ingeniously constructed to work as three distinctive locations in the small space of the theatre. The one exception to the set design was the way in which Helen’s room in the boarding house was realized.  Kaye Voyce’s costume design effectively evoked the time and place of the stories without seeming to be out of place.


 © Scott L. Bennett, Jr.  2012

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