(L-R) Betty Buckley as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, Cotter Smith as Howard Ratliff and Veanne Cox as Julia Price in the Alley Theatre’s production of The Old Friends. Photo by John Everett.
The Old Friends
Written by: Horton Foote
Directed by: Michael Wilson
Company: Alley Theatre
Run Dates: August 20 – September 7, 2014
Is there anything more delicious than stories about Southern family dysfunction? Unlike it’s northeastern counterpart which whines and naval gazes with New York-esque neurosis, southern family feuds seethe and claw while cloaked in the humidity of comportment, raising the stakes even higher by the duality of purpose. Beloved American Dramatist and Texas native Horton Foote, surely knew this when he sat down to write The Old Friends in the mid 1960’s. The play, which lingered on the shelf and in re writes for several years until its first professional (and posthumous) production Off Broadway in 2013, is now on offer with largely the same cast and production at the Alley Theatre’s temporary location at the University of Houston. It’s an early effort by Foote to be sure although he apparently kept working on it up until his death. The writing is overly brash at times and the characters a tad too tactless to fully absorb, but none of that really matters in this wonderfully performed comedic and visually striking production that milks more enjoyment from its audience that the play probably deserves.
The plot is one of bruised egos and rivalries and loves not realized all set in a small town just outside Houston in the 1960’s. And just like every good feud, there is a conflict at the heart of it. Actually there are several. Matriarch Mamie Borden (a fantastically put upon Annalee Jefferies) lives miserably with her thoroughly unlikeable and selfish daughter Julia (Veanne Cox wonderfully oozing greed in all things) and her nasty, loveless husband Albert (Jeffrey Bean). While Julia barely gives her mother one thought now that she’s secured all of the inheritance, Albert seems to revel in expressing his inexplicable and over the top hatred for Mamie. When the play opens they are all waiting for daughter in law Sibyl (a perfectly taut Hallie Foote) to return from many years abroad with Mamie’s ill and unsuccessful son, Hugo. None of them of course realize that Sibyl comes with upsetting and life changing news. While they wait, the wealthy and permanently booze soaked family friend/enemy Gertrude (Betty Buckley giving an uproarious larger than life performance) pops by with her dead husband’s younger brother Howard (played with superlative subtlety by Cotter Smith) who now manages her farm and possibly other more intimate matters. At least that’s the way Gertrude would have it. She’s as determined to chase Howard’s love as she is her next drink, despite his assurance that whatever may be between them physically, he will never love her. His love, we come to know, is reserved for Sibyl who he was set on marrying before she let her own ego get in the way and instead set off with Hugo. Complicating matters in this ‘conflict abounds in every corner plot’, is the fact that Gertrude’s father cruelly bankrupted Sibyl’s father when he forcibly took possession of her family’s farm.
Director Michael Wilson nicely balances the soap opera nature of the story with unshowy staging. Downplaying the grandeur of the drunken brawls and cruel barbs, broken hearts and bad behavior. Wilson rarely has his characters speak directly to one another, instead keeping each one seemingly locked in their own little solipsistic world. It’s a nice touch that thankfully gets put aside the few times when kinder hearts prevail in the dialogue. Jeff Cowie’s gorgeous set design also plays opposite to the chaos. Whether it’s his peacocked-walled and mustard furnishing of Mamie’s house or the sumptuous billowing greys and pale blues of Gertrude’s mansion, Cowie brings beauty and calmness to an otherwise crackling stage.
But really it’s the performances that make this production such a kick. To say that this is a fantastically talented cast is an understatement, especially given the general lack of character development or meatiness in the script. Of particular note is Smith’s Howard who seems to speak with a disembodied voice that grows stronger and stronger as he figures out what kind of man he’s going to be. Howard is the least flamboyant of the bunch and is a character that could have easily been trounced by the hysterics, but Smith elevates him to centre stage by allowing his trepidation to linger and his confidence to grow organically. Julia on the other hand doesn’t seem to know what subtle is and in Cox’s expert hands we are thankful for it. Her Julia literally slithers around the stage in dance and flirtation provoking everyone in her path. Employing a deep-throated drawl with killer comedic timing, Cox gives us a woman we can laugh with despite our hatred of her as a person. However, it’s Buckley in the pivotal role of Gertrude that steals the show most often. Drunk, spoiled, insecure, spiteful, besotted and prone to temper tantrums, Gertrude is a whirlwind that Buckley embodies fully and without apology. She staggers and flirts and belittles and embarrasses herself constantly with misbehaviour but Buckley ensures that Gertrude never loses the command of a woman who by virtue of wealth is able to demand and get. The only misstep in her performance is a late scene drunken and destructive tantrum that feels stiflingly planned and lacking in emotion. It’s perhaps here that Wilson’s unshowy direction could have eased up to let Buckley truly lose composure as she tears apart her surroundings.
Because after all, tearing apart is what The Old Friends is about in the end. In one of her more lucid moments, Gertrude declares, “Isn’t it wonderful! Nobody is mad at anybody else!” It may be true at the time, but we also know that peace in Foote’s script is a fleeting thing that will end as soon as the next drink is poured or past moment revisited. But as melodramatic as the script may be, in the end no one is really happy. Foote’s characters may be larger than life or lacking in dimension, but he has the good sense to let them spin and leave the audience to wonder. Wonder may also be the appropriate word to describe our feelings on whether this script or these characters will stick with us much past leaving the theatre. Probably not. But thanks to such a terrific production and a cast with talent for days, we happily enjoy the time we’ve given them.
For Foote fans – Certainly from a canon point of view it’s incredibly interesting to see an early piece that was tinkered with almost up until the writer’s death. No, it isn’t as developed as his other works and it does veer towards serial storytelling, but there’s still that Foote magic in the way small town life bleeds into our behaviour and interactions. SEE IT
For Foote newbies – Are there Foote newbies in Texas? Kidding of course. This is a light comedic intro to Foote’s way of seeing things. An amuse bouche if you will for his more poignant and subtle inquiries. But you’ll laugh with at this terrific cast and enjoying your first Foote play is a gateway drug to see more, which is a good thing. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – This is a value for the money type play. Undemanding yet full in its production values and wonderful talent, you’ll feel like you spend a solidly entertaining night at the theatre. SEE IT
For theatre junkies – Yes some of the writing will irk you. Why is Albert so angry at his mother in law and why did Foote have to take Gertrude so far over the top in places? But just calm down and focus on what these performers are achieving on stage. Then revel in a gorgeous set and direction that helps underplay the scripts failings. Manage that and you’ll be swept up just like the rest of the audience. SEE IT