Primary Stages continues its Foote Family Reunionscheduling with “Harrison, TX,” three one-act plays by the late, great patriarch, Horton Foote. The ensemble is anchored by Hallie Foote, who has an uncanny affinity for her father’s idiosyncratic characters, and scribe Daisy Foote will complete this family portrait with her own new play opening next month. On the current bill are two sketchy, if beautifully written scenes of Southern life just before the Depression flattens this Texastown. The third piece, which captures the tone of quiet desperation in a respectable boarding house, is quite finished, but could have used an edit.
Because the designers have gone overboard on the depressing decor, the scene settings are too dark for Foote’s delicately put feelings — a subtle blend of affection, sympathy, humor and horror — about the little Texas town where he grew up and which became the bottomless well of inspiration for his many plays. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are just as period specific; but because they look fresh (and are worn with such easy familiarity by the thesps), they seem old-fashioned without being dreary.
“Blind Date,” is a spot-on sample of Foote’s lethal sense of humor. This 1920s version of a sitcom is set in the home of Robert Henry (Devon Abner, a solid presence who always seems to be saying: “Lean on me”), a successful lawyer and undisputed king of his comfortable domestic kingdom. Henry’s perfect lady of a wife, Dolores, is a role that Hallie Foote had to age into, but it fits her like her own skin.
Dolores has gone to great trouble arranging a date for her willfully independent niece, Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green, a saucy little comedienne and a real find), who at first seems to be the brunt of the joke. But once Dolores finishes dispensing her dead-serious tricks on how a clever girl catches a man — her saddest secret being how she had to grit her teeth and force herself to converse on subjects calculated to flatter the male ego — this dark comedy turns into a nuanced study of how different generations of Southern women use their wits to survive in a man’s world.
“The One-Armed Man” is even more of a sketch, but with a stark central image that sums up the master/serf relationship between the haves and have-nots in the industrial south of the 1920s. The action takes place in the office of C.W. Rowe (the stalwart Jeremy Bobb), the self-satisfied owner of a cotton gin who treats his underpaid and debt-ridden bookkeeper (another sturdy turn from Devon Abner) with contempt. “There is no excuse for a man to be in debt in this great little town of ours,” he lectures this wretch, faulting him for lacking the vision to start his own factory.
This slave driver honestly can’t understand why a young factory worker (Alexander Cendese, looking like an avenging archangel) keeps showing up at his door demanding the return of the arm he lost to a malfunctioning factory machine. Foote maneuvers himself into a dead end that might have been less jarring in a short story, but the writing is fierce and the piece is well acted, with helmer Pam MacKinnon (“Clybourne Park”) getting the maximum tension from a harrowing situation.
“The Midnight Caller,” which takes place in 1952, is the most fully developed story, but also the one most in need of a final polish. The scene is well set in the respectable boarding house of Mrs. Crawford, a very proper widow nicely underplayed by Hallie Foote. Her paying guests do run to type, but the all-pro cast gives them dimension: the bitter old maid (played with tantalizing hints of self-awareness by Mary Bacon); the young secretary who’s probably in love with her boss (Andrea Lynn Green, sweetly protective of this romantic girl); and the elderly lady trying to make the best of her lonely life (a bit too cheerfully in Jayne Houdyshell’s perf).
The reassuring rhythms of boarding-house life are disrupted when Mrs. Crawford takes in two more guests: an eligible man (Jeremy Bobb, a model gentleman) and the attractive Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin, appealing, but rather overwhelmed by all the exposition she has to deliver). Helen’s unhappy romance with the town drunk Harvey Weems (Alexander Cendese) has scandalized the whole town, and her pained efforts to resist his pathetic midnight calls are nothing short of heroic.
This is the kind of small town heartbreak that Foote always manages to elevate into high tragedy. He manages it here, too, but with a barrage of verbiage that would surely not have survived a smart rewrite.