“Don’t despair,” urges a character in Horton Foote’s “Talking Pictures,” one of the esteemed playwright’s lesser-known but treasurable works receiving a rare revival at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. Originally written as a screenplay in the 1980s, the play is set, as always, in Harrison, Texas, the fictional stand-in for Foote’s own hometown. In this case, however, the time is 1929, at the precipice of a national economic catastrophe, making the advice about not losing hope particularly meaningful and providing a context that delivers an added oomph of contemporary relevance at this turbulent moment in time.
The characters in “Talking Pictures” never discuss the stock market, Herbert Hoover or Keynesian economics. Instead, they discuss the fact that the local movie theater is going to switch to talkies, which will put Myra Tolliver (Jenny McKnight), the divorced single mom who plays the piano there, out of work. And they talk about how the Jackson family, in whose home Myra and her son Pete (Bubba Weiler) rent a room and where the story plays out, may have to leave Harrison if Mr. Jackson (Jason Wells) is “bumped” from his job with the railroad.
It’s pure Foote: These engrossing personal stories — small in the big scheme of things, but all the world to the people he so sympathetically depicts — stand in for the greater winds of change.
The production, played in the round at the Goodman’s reconfigurable second space, boasts a slew of finely tuned performances, particularly from McKnight. The central figure, her Myra pulls us in instantly as she worries deeply about losing Pete to her wealthy ex (Dan Waller), who can offer him a big house in Houston with a swimming pool. McKnight’s fine sense of the character’s quiet nobility makes Myra easy to root for as she’s courted by her utterly decent neighbor Willis, portrayed with just the right reticence by Philip Earl Johnson.
Director Henry Wishcamper does a superb job handling a multilayered work that balances comedy and heartfelt sorrow in nearly equal measure. He lets some of the supporting characters get a little hammy, but it’s a defensible choice. At times, “Talking Pictures” actually shows Foote at his most self-conscious, nearly meta-theatrical. Myra relates movie plots to the Jackson girls, and then basically a full-scale melodrama takes place before their eyes involving Willis’ wife Gladys (Audrey Francis) — he needs to get divorced before he can marry Myra — and her more recent beau (E. Vincent Teninty), a gun-toting, humorously pathetic stalker.
Multiple characters pontificate about their preference for happy vs. sad endings, even as Myra is tossed back and forth between the possibility of joblessness and losing her kid to a potentially fresh start. In such a twisty and uncertain world, all she — and by extension, anyone — can really hold onto is a good story or two for entertainment’s sake, and Willis’ admonition against despair.
“Talking Pictures” is a terrific start to the Goodman’s Foote Festival.