The Old Friends

  • Our critic's rating:
    September 1, 2013

    What a sad old town is Harrison, Texas. It is 1965 and this place seems to have stopped all its clocks nearly a decade ago. And these folks have nothing to do but peck at each other like lonely old birds.

    Mamie Borden (Lois Smith) is living with her daughter Julia (Veanne Cox) and son-in-law Albert (Adam LeFevre) who a have a vice grip on their unhappiness. One the evening in question they are waiting for the arrival of Mamie’s other child Hugo and his wife Sybil (Hallie Foote) who are moving back home after years of gallivanting all over Venezuela where Hugo looked for oil unsuccessfully.

    In the mean time they are visited by a local “neighbor” the widow Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff (Betty Buckley), who has just come from ordering her dead husband’s headstone and her property manager Howard (Cotter Smith) in whom she is more than interested. Gertrude has one foot in her mouth and the other in a bottle of vodka. There is a cocktail party going on in the neighborhood and the young ’uns are eager to head over as soon as Sybil and Howard arrive. When the wait gets too much they all head out.

    Sybil arrives with the news that Howard has suffered a heart attack and died. This news puts everything out of joint. There is little or no money for a funeral, and Sybil will have a difficult time coming up with the money she needs to rent her old house from Julia – one that Sybil’s father lost to Julia’s father many years ago. It seems that although Sybil was a sought after woman, her family fell on some hard times with the loss of the house to Mr. Borden as well as miscellaneous diamonds to Gertrude.

    With Sybil’s arrival, Howard’s attention switches from Gertrude to Sybil, his love interest 30 years prior. By her sheer presence, Sybil pulls back the curtain behind which everyone has been hiding. Julia is old and lonely. Gertrude controls people because she is richer than God and no one will cross her. Albert is miserable. Howard is close to giving up hope of achieving anything for himself. All of this now feels the spotlight of Sybil’s genuine goodness and determination.

    While the direction and blocking are unexceptional (similar to the lackluster direction of Trip To Bountiful) i.e. the awkward moments in the second act where the cast neglects to pick up jewelry scattered over the floor and instead sends them skittering across the floor as they walk - Mr. Wilson has gotten some fine performances out of these actors. Lois Smith is retrained in her expressions of hopelessness, and the often shrill and one-dimensional Foote is positively stately in her grief as a widow and an unsuccessful prodigal daughter. Cotter Smith has lost at least 20 pounds and 10 years and brings a grace and subtlety to Howard. Adam LeFevre bides his time like a dark horse and saves his energy and rage for the exact perfect moment. Less successful is Veanne Cox who must have been told to make Julia shrill. Because Ms. Cox has a voice that carries to the rafters, to have her raise it over and over blots out any attempt at subtlety and becomes grating. But it is Betty Buckley who rules this roost. Gertrude is a shattered woman who swings from insecurity to dominance to petulance all within a few minutes. Buckley’s performance is disarming and treacherous. Hers is brilliant work and a clinic in acting all on its own. In addition Novella Nelson brings a grace and grounded quality to the character of Hattie. Sean Lyons and Melle Powers do the best with what they are given, but the parts do not lend themselves to being memorable.

    This is yet another excursion into the loneliness that Horton Foote finds so compelling. Ina conversation with Howard, Sybil quotes her favorite poet Pablo Neruda who wrote: Donde estan las tristezas. Translation: Where do the griefs go?

    It seems as though they make a bee-line for Harrison Texas.

    "A lively potboiler of a production."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Louder, less gentle and more cartoonish than Foote’s best works."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "A virtuoso ensemble led by Betty Buckley and Lois Smith delivers a master class in precision acting."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "A rather tender romance lies at the center of ... a dazzling production."
    Jeremy Gerard for Bloomberg

    "An overheated melodrama that resembles a particularly busy soap-opera episode."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "Wonderful play. ... Like Tennessee Williams, Foote captures a southern rhythm in this play that’s both abrupt and lyrical."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "While the play scarcely represents Foote at his poignant best, it still proves to be an enjoyable dark comedy."
    Michael Summers for Newsroom Jersey

    "A sterling production ... ..fascinating if problematic work."
    Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter

    "There’s a lot of exposition to get through before the festivities can begin, but once the awkward preliminaries are over and the cast hits its stride, we can relax and enjoy the endearing monsters that Foote has created."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

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