The Traveling Lady
Horton Foote's 1954 play features high drama on the back porch.
Sometimes the characters seem to be whispering to each other as they pass up and down the center aisle in La Femme Theatre Productions' off-Broadway revival of Horton Foote's The Traveling Lady at the Cherry Lane Theatre. We lean in to try and hear what they are saying, and before long, we're eavesdropping like Mrs. Kravitz in an episode of Bewitched. As it turns out, this hyper-attentiveness is the best condition in which to take in Foote's quietly powerful drama.
Foote was the poet of small-town Texas life, having set several of his plays in and around the fictional town of Harrison (including the recently produced revival of The Roads to Home). The Traveling Lady is no exception, taking place entirely on the porch of Harrison resident Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi). It's 1950 and Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) has come to town to find a home for her young daughter, Margaret Rose (an adorable Korinne Tetlow), and her husband, Henry (PJ Sosko), who is soon to be released from prison. Or so Georgette thinks.
Henry has actually been working in Harrison (his hometown) for weeks and hadn't yet told his wife. When they finally reunite, he promises to find the family a house so they can settle down. But while Georgette and Margaret Rose wait at the Breedlove house, Henry goes on a bender, relapsing into the same drinking and fighting that landed him in the slammer. This is despite the best efforts of Mrs. Tillman (a severe Jill Tanner), the town's resident temperance crusader. Complicating matters, local mechanic Slim Murray (a sturdy Larry Bull) has fallen in love with Georgette. As Texas booms with the recent discovery of oil, Georgette has to decide whether or not to move on.
Under the sensitive and confident direction of Austin Pendleton, the play slowly cooks like a stew, its aroma wafting over the audience and enticing us further with each scene. Pendleton doesn't try too hard to grab our attention or push the pace. He lets us come to the play, which we are eager to do, especially when the text is delivered by this expert cast.
Fiordellisi offers a sympathetic ear as the kindly Clara. Karen Ziemba plays her nervous and fidgety neighbor, Sitter Mavis, who watches Clara like a little girl observes her cool older sister. Lynn Cohen gives a memorable performance as Mrs. Mavis, Sitter's forgetful mother. She's hilarious and just a bit rude in the way the elderly often are after they've lost patience for social niceties. While some of her lines suggest a second childhood ("I'm gonna catch lightning bugs"), the terror in her eyes betrays the fact that she knows exactly what is happening to her. We also wonder what exactly is happening inside the Mavis home that Sitter is trying to hide with her desperate smile.
By contrast, Lichty's doe-eyed smile upon seeing her long-lost husband is pure sincerity, and it breaks our hearts, especially when Henry greets that smile with a polite handshake. Lichty exudes a genuine vulnerability that makes us care about Georgette and her future.
Sosko plays a Henry whose boyish good looks have long since ripened with age (and drink and prison). His voice is still angelic, though, and he enchants everyone in the theater when he sings. We know why Georgette followed him all the way to Harrison, a town that appears idyllic, even after we learn that it is not.
Set designer Harry Feiner handsomely fashions Clara's porch and garden, complete with a picket fence and a rusting metal gate. The backdrop depicts a blue sky marbled by cirrus clouds. Over the course of the play, Feiner (who also designed the lighting) treats us to a magnificent sunset as the day fades to dusk and, finally, night. Look hard and you'll notice little flashes of light — the lightning bugs Mrs. Mavis is eager to catch. Along with Theresa Squire's authentically modest period costumes, it's absolutely picturesque and will make you wonder what you're doing hanging around New York City in the middle of summer.
Don't leave before you take in this excellent revival, though. Few directors can make a nearly 63-year-old play feel fresh and exciting quite the same way Pendleton can. It's the kind of theatrical magic you really have to experience firsthand.