Between the incandescent production of “The Trip to Bountiful” currently playing at the Signature Theater Company and now this lovely revival of “The Traveling Lady” at Ensemble Studio Theater, Horton Foote is having himself some helluva 90th birthday party. A joint venture of EST and Baylor U., where this trimmed-down “Lady” originated in 2004, the bittersweet drama is one of the most enchanting chapters in the scribe’s homespun cycle of plays set in Harrison, Texas, celebrating a small-town way of life that was washed away — to Foote’s everlasting regret — in the oil boom.
Sooner or later, everybody who lives and dies in Harrison has to go past Clara Breedlove’s house, which is right next door to the town graveyard and on the route out of town. Pretty as a picture and neat as a pin in Maruti Evans’ sparkling set design, the back porch and yard of the Breedlove homestead is the best spot in town to take in the human comedy on the day of Miss Kate Dawson’s funeral.
“She was a funny little woman,” according to Judge Robedaux (Frank Girardeau), who drops by on his way to the cemetery. “You’d think she was the gentlest little soul alive.”
As it turns out, this sweet little old lady used to whip the tar out of her foster child, Henry Thomas, “to break his spirit.” Now the grownup Henry Thomas (Jamie Bennett), fresh out of prison for an act of drunken brutality, has come home to attend Miss Kate’s funeral. Thanks to the philanthropical Mrs. Tillman (Alice McLane), who is “a little fanatical,” according to the neighbors, about reforming bad boys like Henry, the charismatic ex-con will also have a chance to make a fresh start.
But when Georgette Thomas (Margot White), Henry’s long-suffering wife, finds her way to Clara’s back yard, after riding the bus all the way from Tyler with the little daughter her daddy has never seen, Henry is nowhere in sight. Slim Murray (Stan Denman), Clara’s brother, who has a tragedy of his own to brood over, is more than willing to watch over Henry’s pretty wife — if she will let him.
That’s the way it always goes in Foote’s sweet, sly plays. Life appears to be gentle and easy in his sleepy southern Texas towns. But the minute some stranger comes to town, or some prodigal son returns to the roost, everyone gets all stirred up. Some people become ornery, others grow restless, skeletons start tumbling out of the family cupboards, and some old gossip is sure to speak the unspeakable.
“Yep, I remember all of it,” ominously says Mrs. Mavis (a delightful Greek chorus of one in Lynn Cohen’s performance), the dotty old lady next door. “I remember everything that happened in this town.”
Marion Castleberry, the Baylor director who originally mounted this show, runs a tight ensemble ship in this clean-as-a-whistle production. The chatty neighbors who gather to gossip on Clara’s back porch actually act like old friends. And the new folks in town, notably Georgette and Henry, seem to know all the social rituals demanded of visitors, even if they don’t always follow them.
If there’s a legit criticism to be made of this timely revival, it’s that it’s been scrubbed too clean to accommodate the play’s darker tones and more subtle themes. Although White couldn’t be sweeter as the traveling lady who comes to town in search of her no-good husband, she could have been less sweet — and not quite so perfectly groomed. The same thing might be said of the text itself, which seems a bit too short and sunny for one of Foote’s densely textured stories. But who could really quarrel with such a nice birthday present.