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The Traveling Lady

Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 22, 2017

Karen Ziemba, Lynn Cohen, PJ Sosko,
Angelina Fiordellisi, and Jill Tanner
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Clara Breedlove's backyard, the setting of Horton Foote's The Traveling Lady, which is currently playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, seems to be the perfect place to sit for a spell and share a bit of small-town gossip. The metal patio furniture is a little weathered but inviting, and there's a pitcher of iced tea to provide temporary relief from the hot Texas sun. An expanse of flatlands, overgrown with prairie grass, lies just beyond the back fence, which functions more as decoration than as a threat to trespassers. Indeed, the Breedlove yard (exquisitely designed by Harry Feiner) in Foote's wistful play offers respite for the residents of Harrison, Texas, but more crucially, it serves as a way station for weary travellers and restless itinerants looking for and escaping from their own homes.

This sense of movement and unrest is conveyed at the beginning of the play. Mrs. Mavis (Lynn Cohen), an addled old woman from next door, is on perpetual run from her daughter, Sitter Mavis (Karen Ziemba). Slim Murray (Larry Bull), the brother of Clara (Angelina Fiordellisi), coaxes her to go back to her own house, but Mrs. Mavis would prefer to sit and reminisce about funerals, which she is now forbidden to attend. The Breedlove and Mavis houses, in fact, are on the route to the cemetery, so burial services have been a major part of Mrs. Mavis's life. Slim is not very interested in the subject since he has buried his wife in the past year, but he is now determined to pick up the pieces and begin a new life in a new town.

Other denizens of the community, including Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen) and Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner), stop by on their way to or from the funeral of Kate Dawkins, a deceptively gentle old woman, but who, we come to find out, was actually tyrannical and violent. Soon, the titular traveling lady, Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty), and her daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow) wander into the Breedlove yard hoping for assistance from the judge in finding their own place to live. Georgette has come to town to meet her husband (and former ward of the deceased Kate Dawkins), Henry Thomas (PJ Sosko), who has been in prison for the past six years, and she is hopeful their reunited family will establish roots in Harrison.

This longing for home, real or imagined, is a dominant theme in Foote's work, and there are echoes from other plays. Foote's Orphan's Home Cycle, for instance, masterfully explores the illusiveness of home, and The Traveling Lady includes a direct reference through Judge Robedaux, presumably a relative of the epic cycle's central character (and based on Foote's father), Horace Robedaux. In addition, Mrs. Mavis, especially in Cohen's agitated and moving performance, recalls Carrie Watts, the desperate runaway of The Trip to Bountiful. And the ne'er-do-well husband, father, and aspiring singer Henry Thomas (played with just the right amount of charm, sadness, and distrustfulness by Sosko) brings to mind Robert Duvall's character Mac Sledge in the film Tender Mercies, for which Foote's screenplay won an Academy Award.

The Traveling Lady is somewhat heavy handed in its construction and occasionally overburdens the scenes with weighty symbolism. Therefore, it may not rate in the top tier of the Foote canon, but it reflects the playwright in excellent form. Premiering on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre in 1954, the original production starred Kim Stanley as Georgette. Brooks Atkinson raved over Stanley's "glorious performance," and he dubbed her work "a stunning piece of acting." The current production may not boast a performance of Stanley's caliber, but director Austin Pendleton has drawn some terrific performances from his ensemble. As Sitter Mavis, the putatively abusive daughter (but who is actually compassionate and kind), Ziemba offers a richly layered portrayal of a woman whose mother is mentally deteriorating before her, but who faces adversity with strength and patience. Tanner is very funny as the tough-as-nails neighbor, Mrs. Tillman, who believes she has never met a drunk she couldn't turn sober. As Georgette, Lichty is sympathetic, while one might wish for heartbreaking, but she and Bull (as the emotionally damaged Slim Murray) effectively complement each other's pain and loneliness.

The play fits nicely in the intimate Cherry Lane Theatre. In addition to Feiner's homey backyard set, the costumes by Theresa Squire and lighting, also by Feiner, capture the supposed carefree experiences and simplicity of small-town life in 1950. There are lightning bugs and the sounds of nature chirping and buzzing to evoke the feeling of folksy calm and nostalgic innocence. Yet Pendleton undermines this atmospheric tranquility fairly regularly. Actors, sometimes as characters in a great rush to get somewhere, enter and exit through the auditorium. The effect is jarring (especially for those sitting on the aisle), but it highlights the potential turbulence and simmering disturbances just under the surface of the seemingly most mundane domestic existence.

The play is infused with images of death, loneliness, and violence, but as is typical of Horton Foote, there is the possibility of hopefulness and redemption. Even rootlessness can be liberating. "My idea of heaven would be to travel," Georgette, the traveling lady, tells Slim. Travel, after all, may lead one ever closer to home.

The Traveling Lady
Through July 16
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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