When it first played on Broadway, in 1954, Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady received mainly negative reviews from critics, but there were several raves for its luminous star, Kim Stanley. Set in a genteel Texas milieu where everyone calls women “ma’am” and men “sir,” Foote’s play tells the story of dreamy Georgette Thomas, who has traveled with her daughter to meet her husband, Henry, an alcoholic who has served time in jail but who’s currently newly employed and on the wagon. It all takes place on a porch where various townspeople come and go and comment on the troubles of this young couple.
Stanley did The Traveling Lady twice for live TV, in 1957 and ’58, and the surviving broadcast of her ’57 performance displays her at her most spookily concentrated. Stanley excels in this play largely because she is often fighting against emotional breakdown rather than unrestrainedly wallowing in it, as she did in some of her more excessive work (1958’s The Goddess). Pried away from Stanley’s dominance as a performer, The Traveling Lady feels less like a star vehicle and more like an ensemble drama, though Austin Pendleton’s production at the Cherry Lane is sometimes transfigured by Lynn Cohen’s fiendishly inventive performance as Mrs. Mavis, an elderly local “terrified” of dying. Cohen played this role before in New York, in 2006, and she goes deep with it here, offering a variegated portrait of a woman who lives in her own world partly to escape from the pain of those around her.
Like much of Foote’s work, The Traveling Lady is a piece of writing on a deliberately small scale. The trick with this playwright is to make the interactions between his people just muscular enough without tearing the fabric of his delicate thematic design. On that level, Pendleton has succeeded admirably by keeping his actors at a medium-rare level of intensity, and Harry Feiner’s lighting effectively charts different times of day and night.
But Foote’s intention here seems somewhat overly concerned with explaining poor behavior and assorted other problems through bad parenting, a tendency symptomatic of a certain strain in Fifties writing for theater, film, and television. We are told, for instance, that Henry’s (P.J. Sosko) mother used to beat him as a child in an attempt to “break his spirit.” Georgette (Jean Lichty), meanwhile, describes her father as “peculiar” and unloving, which might explain her own desperate need for Henry. It is also clear that Mrs. Mavis’s near-witchy behavior is a strain on her repressed daughter, Sitter (Karen Ziemba), who at one point says that her life would have been entirely different if she had only learned to dance. (This got a big and sad meta-laugh from the audience, since Ziemba made her name onstage as a dancer.)
Lichty works hard, but she cannot begin to approach Stanley’s uncanny specificity when she speaks of Georgette’s past. With her patrician looks and manner, Lichty would probably be more at home in a Philip Barry drawing room than on a porch in Texas. This Georgette seems like a woman we don’t need to worry about, whereas everything for Stanley’s fragile Georgette was a matter of life and death.
The Traveling Lady
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Through July 16