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The Traveling Lady

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Playwright Horton Foote has rightly been celebrated for his gift for understatement, but how often are his titles examined through the same lens? If you know nothing about The Traveling Lady, which Ensemble Studio Theater is currently presenting in a warmly pleasing revival, you might assume it's a close relative to Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, which just wrapped up a fine run at the Signature Theatre Company, or that it's just about one woman and one journey.

As it turns out, neither is the case. The titular traveler, one Georgette Thomas, is certainly here: She and her young daughter are on their way to a new life, hopefully with Georgette's long-incarcerated husband, Henry. But in this play, as in so many of Foote's, practically everyone is headed somewhere, and in one fateful week in 1950, everyone meets at the crossroads of Clara Breedlove's house in the tiny Texas town and frequent Foote locale of Harrison (the warmly homespun cottage set is by Maruti Evans).

Besides Georgette (Margot White) and her daughter Margaret Rose (the adorable Quincy Confoy), there's Clara (Rochelle Oliver) and her brother Slim (Stan Denman), whose wife died a year ago and who is planning to move away from Harrison and take up a new life elsewhere. There's Mrs. Mavis (Lynn Cohen), a wandering elderly woman, who's trying to live every second of her second childhood, much to the chagrin of her put-upon daughter (Carol Goodheart).

And, of course, there's Henry (Jamie Bennett), who was released from prison a month ago, and - unbeknownst to his wife - has been rooming with Mrs. Tillman (Alice McLane), who believes the best in anyone, even when they work overtime to prove otherwise. Henry is that kind of soul - he's trying to enter a more positive phase of life by forming a band (he's a fine singer) and holding down a regular job, but can't easily put his dishonest and thieving ways behind him. And, strangely, Georgette doesn't bring out the best in him.

But she positively affects the others she meets, a transformation that Foote beautifully and subtly charts multiple times during the compact play. This is a world where anyone can make more of themselves with the proper gumption (and occasionally the proper help), the overall message of The Traveling Lady is the inspiring one that such people do exist. But they're frequently mixed in with the ne'er-do-wells, and telling the difference isn't always so easy.

White's Georgette is unapologetically sunny, and White's likable if cautious performance radiates with hope for happier days ahead, making her seem like a quintessential Foote heroine brimming with knowing innocence. Much of her support, particularly from Denman, who shades Slim with many different colors of personal complexity, and the matronly Oliver is at her level. Bennett, however, is not quite: His Henry vacillates too unpredictably between clean-scrubbed and violent, the erraticism not really present in the bad apple Foote planted. The utterly unthreatening Bennett doesn't look like he'd survive a night in the county lockup, let alone several years in prison.

That's a rare lapse from director Marion Castleberry, who otherwise has a solid grasp on who these people are and where they're going. Typical for Foote, many of the characters' voyages don't end when the play does, but are in fact just beginning: It's to Castleberry's credit that he's able to make you care as much about where they are now as where they're off to next.

It occasionally feels as though the proceedings are unduly lightweight, which might be explained by the use of a revised text of the 1954 play, which Castleberry directed at Baylor University in 2004. This trimmer, friendlier version might benefit from at least a partial reexamination of the work's darker roots; it's that little bit of heaviness that always gives Foote's plays such affecting resonance. But as things stand, it's hard to feel too cheated - spring's just around the corner, and what better time for the sun to come out?

The Traveling Lady
Through March 19
Ensemble Studio Theatre (E.S.T.), 549 West 52nd Street (Between 10th and 11th Avenue)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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