HORTON FOOTE’S THE TRAVELING LADY
Cherry Lane Mainstage Theatre
38 Commerce St.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 30, $65-$95 ($39-$49 with code TTLRED)
Austin Pendleton’s revival of Horton Foote’s 1954 Broadway play, The Traveling Lady, is essentially a simple little diversion, a gentle, bittersweet slice-of-life drama that is singularly American. The show, which opened Thursday night at the Cherry Lane, takes place in a small town in Foote’s home state of Texas, where he set most of his works, including the Tony-nominated The Trip to Bountiful, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man from Atlanta, the Orphans’ Home Cycle, and the trio of shorts that make up Harrison, TX. It’s 1950, and folks are gathering in Clara Breedlove’s (Angelina Fiordellisi) quaint backyard (designed by Harry Feiner, who also did the lighting). Stopping by on the day of Miss Kate Dawson’s funeral are Mrs. Mavis (Lynn Cohen), a cranky old lady who enjoys torturing her daughter, the kindhearted Sitter Mavis (Karen Ziemba); Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen), a frail, elderly man who doesn’t mind a bit of gossip here and there; Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner), a fanatical Bible-thumping teetotaler who brings in reclamation projects to cure them of the evil ills of drink and crime; the friendly Clara, who welcomes the company; and Clara’s brother, Slim Murray (Larry Bull), a hardworking, soft-spoken man who has recently been widowed. Arriving on this hot day is Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) and her young daughter, Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), who have ridden the bus all night and are looking for a place to live while waiting for her husband, Henry (PJ Sosko), to get out of prison. But she is surprised to discover that he has already been freed and is working for Mrs. Tillman, who is determined to reform him. But that’s a whole lot easier said than done.
A collaboration between Cherry Lane Theatre’s Founder’s Project and La Femme Theatre Productions to celebrate the centennial of Foote’s birth — the playwright was born in 1916 and passed away in 2009 at the age of ninety-two — The Traveling Lady is a creaky, old-fashioned tale of a more simpler time in America, a story that shows its age. Pendleton (A Day by the Sea, A Taste of Honey), one of the busiest off-Broadway directors around, has several characters enter and leave via the narrow Cherry Lane aisle, which is probably supposed to make the audience feel more a part of the atmosphere but instead becomes overused relatively quickly while also confusing the geography of the location. Cohen (I Remember Mama, Big Love), who also portrayed Mrs. Mavis in a 2006 revival at Ensemble Studio Theater, is wonderfully nasty as the ornery old soul, who might not be quite as doddering as she sometimes likes to appear. “Yep. I remember all of it. I remember everything that happened in this town,” she says. Bull (The Coast of Utopia, Rocket to the Moon) is strong and solid as Slim, a man’s man who is unable to share his true feelings. Tony winner Ziemba (Contact, Steel Pier), Tanner (Dividing the Estate, Enchanted April), and Cherry Lane founding artistic director Fiordellisi (Out of the Mouths of Babes, Catch the Butcher) are fine as the chatty women, but there is little chemistry between Sosko (Row After Row, Reentry) and Lichty (Nora, A Loss of Roses); of course, their characters have not seen each other for a long time, but the audience is unlikely to care whether they get back together or not. Lichty, who cofounded Le Femme with Pendleton and Robert Dohmen, fares better as the sensitive mother, but Sosko is hampered by Henry’s desire to form a band, a subplot that goes nowhere. Foote, who won screenwriting Oscars for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, instills the hundred-minute intermissionless The Traveling Lady with some charming moments, but there are not quite enough of them to sustain this production above being a nice, pleasurable detour.