“I wasn’t born a conversationalist, you know,” Dolores (Hallie Foote) tells her lawyer husband, Robert (Devon Abner), early in the first of the three one-acts that make up Horton Foote’s Harrison, TX (Primary Stages). “I gritted my teeth and forced myself to converse.”
She might, to some degree, be speaking for her author. Foote, who died three years ago at age 92, spent much of his career enshrining, in a long series of plays, the conversation of Texans who were not born conversationalists, and who often might have preferred to remain silent. Swatches of sudden taciturnity streak his texts; the conversations they interrupt, as flat and repetitive as the surrounding landscape, encase the interlocking histories of seemingly innumerable families, through multiple generations. Harrison, Texas, the midsize town where the bulk of Foote’s oeuvre takes place, has become a locale so familiar to New York theatergoers over the decades that the more attentive could probably draw you a map of the town or forecast its weather—which, like its dialogue, is mostly dry, with occasional spells of ferocious heat or unexpectedly violent storms.
A first encounter with one of Foote’s Harrison plays may tend to mystify: There seems, as in Gertrude Stein’s opinion of Oakland, not much there there. People come and go, pleasantries and information are exchanged, a crisis crops up and is or isn’t resolved, and life goes on. Grasping the shape of the plays can prove a challenge; some of them seem to consist almost entirely of exposition, not all of it germane to the minimal events. That piled-up expository data, of course, weighs in on the next Foote play and the next. In the interstices between the small events, he was painting a picture of the town’s life, each play becoming another segment of a much larger mural. (Among novelists, Faulkner makes an obvious analogy, often drawn.)
Foote may have viewed the patient persistence with which he built his theatrical portrait of a community as his own adaptation of a distinctive local characteristic. Many of the figures who populate his plays are blessed, or maybe cursed, with the equivalent of his single-minded doggedness in pursuing their goals, however futile. Chekhov, like Faulkner, is often cited as a source of Foote’s inspiration, but the myriad distractions that flutter through the minds of Chekhov’s people, making them forget the vital tasks they have in hand, hardly seem comparable to the fixations of Foote’s grimly determined folk, stark souls bred up through generations to confront the stark landscape they inhabit. The respect with which one views them mingles with a degree of puzzlement, even of horror, at their obsessiveness. A better comparison than Chekhov might be Ben Jonson, whose “humour”-fixated characters, each locked in his or her private mania, thunder across the world with similarly insistent force, obstinately pursuing dreams unlikely to come true.
All three of the one-acts in Harrison, TX, though apparently written years apart, embody that obstinacy. “Blind Date” deals with the “conversationalist” Dolores’s stop-at-nothing attempt to find a social life for her visiting niece, Sarah Nancy (a drolly grumpy performance by Andrea Lynn Green). Sarah Nancy’s equally firm commitment is to being left alone. She doesn’t care about the social success that has been Dolores’s lifelong quest, and she thinks the boy Dolores has selected as her gentleman caller, Felix, looks “just like a warthog.” Felix (Evan Jonigkeit, decidedly un-warthog-like), who shows up only because his mother bullied him into doing so, displays equal inarticulate reluctance. Ironically, Dolores’s manic efforts at sociability push the two youngsters toward the one thing they share—the sullen silence of mutual disinterest.
“The One-Armed Man” shifts the scene to the office of a cotton gin, where the manager, C.W. (Jeremy Bobb), and his assistant, Pinkey (Abner again), confront the title character, McHenry (Alexander Cendese), a former employee driven to despair by having lost his arm in the gin’s machinery. Here, with the stakes far higher than in “Blind Date,” repetition and sullen silence alternate in sparse, strategic harshness. While C.W. strives to avoid unpleasantness, McHenry demands the impossible. “I want my arm back,” he keeps repeating.
When McHenry pulls a gun with his surviving hand, the repetition moves to his opponents’ side. Forced to kneel and pray at gunpoint, neither C.W. nor Pinkey can remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father Who art in Heaven” is about the most they can force themselves to say, alternating with blurts of “Now I lay me down to sleep,” which draw irate contempt from McHenry. Since reaching the end of the prayer will mean the end of their lives, the nervous reiteration of phrases here takes on the power of a survival tactic. The notion casts its light on the whole body of Foote’s work.
Similarly, the life-or-death struggle of “The One-Armed Man” casts its shadow over the evening’s finale, “The Midnight Caller.” Here the two kinds of repetition, from compulsive madness and from the convention-bred sociability that staves it off, meet in a larger social context. A boardinghouse is, in effect, both a home and a workplace. In the boardinghouse run by patient, well-meaning Mrs. Crawford (Hallie Foote again), unfamilied women from the fringes of Harrison’s social life gather: Miss Rowena (Jayne Houdyshell), an elderly retired schoolteacher, and two no-longer-young working women, Alma Jean (Mary Bacon, defensively sharp-edged) and “Cutie” (Green, this time ruefully pert), both painfully aware that any chance they had of marriage is quickly slipping by.
Into this placid mix, Mrs. Crawford tosses two disruptive new arrivals: a recently divorced salesman, Ralph (Bobb, nicely mixing desperate and dapper), and Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin), the distraught heroine of a local Romeo-and-Juliet story gone bad. Helen’s former beau, Harvey (Cendese), the title character, now a near-suicidal drunk, still pursues her. (In an irony that reaches back to the opening play, their romance has gone awry thanks to domineering mothers asserting, like Dolores, their own ideas of social propriety.)
Here we get a resolution, of sorts, and some reflections on the crisscross of lives that suggest an awareness of Chekhov. Pam MacKinnon’s production, using Marion Williams’s set ingeniously, gives the performances a fullness that makes the boardinghouse a little world. Never enthralling but always intriguing, the three tiny plays provide a vibrant sense of Foote’s awe at the largeness of his creative task. “It all began so long ago that I don’t remember the beginning,” Helen says of her now-dead love affair with Harvey, “and so how can I possibly know the end?” It might be Foote himself, talking about his life’s work.