Theater

Horton Foote’s Disorienting Style Drives ‘The Roads to Home’

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Horton Foote (1916–2009) was a highly skilled professional playwright and screenwriter. His many awards include an Obie, a Pulitzer, and two Oscars, for the screenplays of Tender Mercies (original) and To Kill a Mockingbird (adaptation). As we say in New York, not chopped liver.

Foote’s achievement is all the more remarkable because his highly individual mode of playwriting can be puzzling, at times even stupefying. His plays look like conventional realistic dramas: Their simple situations occur in recognizable places; their characters speak and behave like ordinary people; each work arrives at a resolution of sorts. But the talk that largely fills these realistic frameworks, though never implausible or stylized, tends to be the opposite of dramatic. Instead of keeping the action moving forward or conveying the characters’ essence, it mostly consists of narration: The person speaking tells his or her own story, or the story of someone he or she knows, or used to know, or the story of some event that occurred before the listener — a listener is always present — arrived in town. These narratives can be hypnotically fascinating, or maddeningly motiveless. They bring the drama to a temporary standstill; in a few of Foote’s works they virtually replace the action. Occasionally, at their most repetitive, they suggest an absurdist satire of the characters, like a Texas-accented Ionesco.

The current revival of Foote’s, The Roads to Home (Cherry Lane Theatre), last seen in New York in 1992, offers in its opening moments a quintessence of his disorienting approach. Mabel (Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter), a housewife sipping her morning coffee, is visited by her next-door neighbor, Vonnie (Harriet Harris), who has been away visiting relatives. When Mabel says she’s expecting company, Vonnie naturally inquires who it is, cuing Mabel’s lengthy account of the troubled young woman, Annie (Rebecca Brooksher), who has become her persistent, and not wholly welcome, daily caller. The scene is Houston in 1924; both Mabel and Annie, like the characters who populate most of Foote’s plays, are transplants from the imaginary town of Harrison, which is to Foote’s works what Yoknapatawpha County is to Faulkner’s.

Mabel’s lengthy description of Annie’s odd behavior, and the traumas that lie behind it, concludes with her abruptly asking Vonnie, “How was your trip?” This naturally gets a huge laugh; Foote often shows a canny awareness of the way his storytelling distends his action. Vonnie responds in detail but less lengthily, describing how she was entertained at her sister’s home in Louisiana, which leads her into an anecdote about the marital troubles of a woman who used to live down the block before Mabel and her husband moved in. This seemingly irrelevant tale, which will turn out to be prophetic, is cut short by Annie’s arrival, in effect starting the play proper.

These expository rituals, which pervade Foote’s playwriting, are largely unlike anything else in dramatic literature. All playwrights whose works tell stories have to deal with exposition: The audience needs the facts of the situation to understand what happens as it develops. We put up with this data in small doses — say, Orlando in As You Like It explaining his family woes to Old Adam — for the sake of the exciting consequences to come. An ingenious writer — think of the two servants’ conversation at the opening of Sheridan’s The Rivals — can convey tone, atmosphere, character, and even a touch of comedy through such scenes. Foote, in contrast, delivers his information more overtly, often then proceeding to reiterate it with amplifying detail, as if the flood of backstory were the characters’ valiant attempt to fill the empty space of the vast Texas plains, or of their lives.

For the lives Foote depicts are often bleak. In The Roads to Home, no one goes home — Vonnie, who has never seen Harrison, is the only one of the three women who goes there in the course of the play — and no marriage seems to be more than another provisional attempt to fill an empty space. Annie’s behavior when she arrives shows us that she is clearly insane. The last of the play’s three acts shows her, four years later, at a dance in Austin, Texas, surrounded by three young men. But the dance is at the mental institution where she is confined, and the men are fellow patients, two of them also from Harrison.

In this act we learn that Annie’s husband (Dan Bittner), whom we’ve previously seen, embarrassed, coming to collect her at Mabel’s house, has now divorced her. One can’t be sure of this, however: Though Annie and two of her seeming suitors continue to supply Footeian narratives, their information is demonstrably unreliable; the third man is catatonically silent.

The women, as often with Foote, are the focal figures here. Annie’s husband appears only briefly in Act One. The middle act deals with Mabel’s and Vonnie’s marital lives. Mabel’s husband, Jack (Devon Abner, Hallie Foote’s real-life husband), is a complacent creature who lives only to work, eat, and sleep, driving her to the brink of frustration. Vonnie’s marriage to Eddie (Matt Sullivan) has gone off the rails since her ill-advised visit to Harrison, and is heading toward a guilt-racked divorce. The three husbands double, in the last act, as Annie’s three fellow patients.

Dimly seen, a social and political context lurks behind these seemingly personal stories. Annie’s Northern background (her mother was a Yankee), and her father’s gift for acquiring wealth, have partly caused the traumatic incidents that initially unhinged her. Mabel and Jack’s move to Houston has partly been occasioned by Harrison’s decline as an economic center; in other Foote plays set in later decades, it’s practically a ghost town. Such matters flicker through the plays, somber backdrops adding to the disquiet of these paradoxical works, in which lively chatter about the past covers an essential stasis, and the characters’ feisty or sentimentally sad attitudes stand as ripostes to what seems a darkly pessimistic underlying vision.

Michael Wilson, who has staged numerous Foote plays, handles this one with ease, adding in exactly enough bright color to cover the basic darkness. Abner and Hallie Foote, old hands at what is in effect a family business, fill their roles appealingly, while Harris demonstrates, triumphantly, that she can thrive as convincingly in naturalism as in the broader comedy of Broadway musicals. Bittner and Sullivan work effectively; only Brooksher, tackling the play’s most problematic role, falls short — her derangement seems slightly artificial. The performers’ vivacity reinforces the paradox: Spacious, sunshiny, and seemingly ordinary, Foote’s Texas is as spiritually dark as any Beckettian landscape.

The Roads to Home

By Horton Foote

Cherry Lane Theatre

38 Commerce Street

212-352-3101 cherrylanetheatre.com

Through November 27