Jenny McKnight (foreground) with Lee Stark
and Kathleen Romond in Talking Pictures
(© Michael Brosilow)
Jenny McKnight (foreground) with Lee Stark
and Kathleen Romond in Talking Pictures
(© Michael Brosilow)
With a trip to Horton Foote's fictional town of Harrison Texas, theatergoers can generally count on meeting genuinely funny people caught in some deeply moving situations. Earlier this year, New York theatergoers witnessed a once-wealthy family from this West Texas town coping with its declining fortune in Foote's 1987 play, Dividing the Estate. Now, it's back to Harrison in Henry Wishcamper's beautiful revival of Talking Pictures, a richly layered comedy with a heart as big as the Lone Star State itself, being presented as part of the Goodman Theater's festival celebrating Foote's theatrical legacy.

Set in a boarding house -- which is brought to the stage marvelously in the round by scenic designer Tom Burch -- the play introduces a host of characters who are facing a host of professional, personal, and emotional changes. At the center is Myra (a richly moving turn from Jenny McKnight), a "grass widow" (a.k.a. divorcee), who's struggling to raise her son Pete (Bubba Weiler). She manages to make a living playing for the silent movies, but the dawn of the "talkies" -- which have already forced many like Myra out of their jobs -- are threatening her ability to make a living. Mr. Jackson (Jason Wells), the patriarch of the family with whom Myra lives, may have to take a different job with the railroad company and move his family.

On a broader scale, the community in which the Jacksons and Myra live is changing. A frequent visitor to the house is Estaquio (a thoroughly winning Gabriel Notarangelo), a teenaged Mexican boy whose father has come to town to start a Mexican Baptist Church. Estaquio is smitten with Jackson's youngest daughter Katie Bell (Lee Stark, perfectly playing a girl a number of years her junior), much to the chagrin of her priggish sister, the aptly named Vesta (Kathleen Romond). You would expect that Mrs. Jackson (a matronly turn with deft surprises from Judy Blue), a staunch churchgoer who has forbidden her daughters to attend the "picture shows," would disapprove of the boy's visit. But upon hearing Estaquio sing "Rock of Ages" in Spanish -- in a hilariously just breaking yet booming pubescent voice -- she's quite content to have the young man visit.

Romance visits the characters in many ways, and it is the source of some of the funniest and most touching moments in Foote's play. Willis (played by Philip Earl Johnson with touching conviction), a construction worker living next door to the family, woos Myra awkwardly and earnestly, in spite of the fact he has yet to get a divorce from Gladys (an hysterical performance by Audrey Francis), the opportunistic woman who left him five years ago. When she arrives on the scene, hotly pursued by her very jealous flame (E. Vincent Teninty), sparks fly and guns go off. The arrival of the bitter and drunken Gerard (played with almost frightening intensity by Dan Waller), Myra's ex, only casts further confusion onto the scene, since he wants Pete to come live with him.

Wishcamper superbly orchestrates this rich mix of characters and a wildly chaotic array of situations. At times -- particularly during an early scene between Myra and Willis --- the acute tenuousness of the characters' worlds and emotions is almost unbearable. Elsewhere, Wishcamper makes sure that the sheer lunacy of the characters and their actions zing with the verve of confections from Kaufman and Hart. While there are moments when the production, good as it is, doesn't fully disguise the rambling arc of Foote's ambitious plotting, Talking Pictures nevertheless resonates well after audiences have left the theater.