Funny; The Old Friends doesn't look like a Horton Foote play. Of course, it shares many a quality with other Foote plays: the Harrison, Texas setting; the devastatingly quiet moments of small, human emotions; and the appearance of Foote's daughter, Hallie, in a crucial role. But The Old Friends, now receiving its premiere production at Signature Theatre under Michael Wilson's direction, seems at times like an Edward Albee play written by Tennessee Williams — booze flows fast and furiously, the characters cut one another down to size in ways that make the audience gasp, and temper tantrums turn the set into shambles. This isn't a complaint. Wilson's production successfully navigates it all, and a game cast led by Tony Award winner Betty Buckley brings these outsized Texans to life.
In theory, The Old Friends is the only remaining "new" play by Foote, who died in 2009 at the age of 92. A "sequel" to his plays Only the Heart (his second full-length play) and The Beginning of Summer, a first draft was completed in 1965, but it was only in 1982 that it was first performed at the HB Playwrights Foundation. A reading 20 years later, produced by Signature, prompted Foote, according to program notes, to reshape the play into the one currently being produced.
That reading also featured (Hallie) Foote and Buckley in the two crucial roles; Foote as the meek Sybil Borden, who returns to Harrison a sudden widow and begins to reclaim her life, and Buckley as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, a wealthy land-owning widow with a penchant for booze and a not-so-hidden love for her land manager, Howard (Cotter Smith). Naturally, Howard is the object of affection in the middle. Once in a relationship with Sybil, who eventually married someone else, he has never lost his affection for her. As Gertrude sees a new relationship start to blossom, she'll stop at nothing to interrupt it.
A veteran director of Horton Foote plays himself, Wilson, who helmed last season's Broadway revival of The Trip to Bountiful, as well as the nine-hour Orphans' Home Cycle, guides his cast through the small Foote moments and the large swaths of melodrama with his usual aplomb.
Ms. Foote has a way with her father's words; it's no question that she's the foremost interpreter of his canon and she shines here with an impressive stoicism and a killer side glance. Buckley, who looks stunning in David C. Woolard's extravagant costumes and a silver Paul Huntley wig, is a thrilling delight as the gargantuan Gertrude; unapologetic, mean, and chewing just the right amount of Jeff Cowie's down-home sets, of which there are three. (It was one of her lines that prompted a woman in the audience to loudly whisper "Jesus!") Smith is the most understated of the trio, delivering a nicely rueful performance as he, too, sets out to recapture his life.
In supporting roles are a host of New York's finest actors including Lois Smith as Sybil's mother-in-law, Mamie, Veanne Cox as Mamie's bitter daughter, Julia, and Adam LeFevre as Julia's put-upon husband, Albert. They are also sheer perfection: Smith manages to break hearts with the utterance of a single sentence; LeFevre has a way with a well-timed jab; and Cox almost manages to outshine Buckley in the mean department.
In his final years, Horton Foote called Signature Theatre his home, and it truly is. No organization has ever done for a playwright what Signature has for Foote's work, and we can only hope that, if any more of his "undiscovered" plays come to the surface, this company will be here to produce them.