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The Roads to Home

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 5, 2016

Harriet Harris, Rebecca Brooksher
and Hallie Foote
Photo by James Leynse

"Home" is a word that may have many definitions depending on the speaker, but in The Road to Home, it doesn't even qualify as a genuine destination. Horton Foote's 1982 play, which Primary Stages is giving a sensitive, lovely, and oh-so-slightly-underpowered revival at the Cherry Lane Theatre under Michael Wilson's direction, posits that having a place to anchor your dreams, even if you can never reach it—especially if you can never reach it—is a critical component of the unsatisfactory life its characters live in 1920s Texas. But how oddly appropriate it seems to us today, too.

Who among us doesn't hold on to illusions the way Mabel Votaugh and Vonnie Hayhurst do? The edging-out-of-middle-age women, dissatisfied with their lives in Houston, muse endlessly about the possibility of traveling to Harrison, the tiny town that factors so prominently in Foote's oeuvre. Mabel came from there a long time ago; Vonnie is from Louisiana, but has heard enough about it for to attain the ethereal status of a Southern Shangri-La. Now that they're tied down with husbands, neither can leave. Should they want to? Their neighbor, Annie Gayle Long, insists it's not a nice place to live, but since she's constantly pointing an imaginary gun at invisible foes and slowly but surely losing more of her faculties still, whether she can be trusted is very much open for debate.

Harrison plays a crucial, and frequently disquieting, role in the proceedings, as the memory of it, and its continued existence, gradually rips apart the women's concepts of comfort and forces them to confront truths that may be beyond their tolerance (and understanding). Across the three related plays that make up the barely-two-hour evening (the first two, "A Nightingale" and "The Dearest of Friends," are set six months apart in Mabel's home; the third, "Spring Dance," is set at a party in Austin), the rises and falls of their marriage, their hopes, and their futures wrap around both the sepia-tinted nostalgia Foote evoked better than anyone and the stark reality that not even the burgeoning promise of a trip to Harrison can dispel.

It's as fiercely magical and fiendishly funny as it is chilling in its projection of the ultimate in "you can't go home again" moralizing, thanks in large part to the presence of Hallie Foote as Mabel. The playwright's daughter, a fixture of his modern-day works who originated the role of Annie and played her Off-Broadway a decade later, could not be more authentic as this faded and fading woman who's trapped within her own longing and beside a somnambulent husband who represents the bonds she longs to escape. (He is played, with glorious, relished indifference, by another Foote stalwart, and Hallie's husband, Devon Abner.) She effortlessly conveys the dying light and dimming beauty, inside and out, that describe Mabel's own fragile and tragic state.

It's sumptuous work that, except for Abner, is not matched by other members of the company. Harriet Harris is wonderfully droll as Vonnie, but couches most of her portrayal in surface-level shenanigans that elicit gales of laughter, but don't suggest the extent her soul is wounded underneath. And though Rebecca Brooksher captures Annie's indescribably "off" quality, she's less sure in rounding out her performance with the brighter and darker tones she needs to register as a heartbreaking enigma rather than someone who gets, however unfortunate that may be, exactly what's coming to her. Dan Bittner and Matt Sullivan round out the cast capably if unremarkably as Annie's and Vonnie's husbands, respectively, and two other men who come to play sadly supporting parts in Annie's final act.

Wilson's direction is focused but soft, and could be paced just a bit quicker to keep the various mysteries aloft just a few minutes longer. Jeff Cowie's set (tactically, knowingly lighted by David Lander) occupies its own region of memory, with walls and household fixtures and furniture that float and stand uncertainly in space, as if they're not positive whether they're supposed be where they've ended up.

It's a departure from the serene naturalism that Foote's works often seem to call for, but in the end it works. After all, those set pieces, as confined to this universe, are no different than anyone else. Everyone in The Roads to Home—and, it seems fair to extrapolate, everyone in the world—is looking for the same unknowable answer to the vexing question of identity. The pursuit of that knowledge may rarely, if ever, lead to where you most want to be, but there aren't a lot of other choices. Foote's characters learn that the lesson the hard way, but is there any other way to learn that the best road to follow is many times the one that goes nowhere at all?

The Roads to Home
Through November 27
Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, three blocks south of Christopher Street, just west of Seventh Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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