Saturday, June 24, 2017

Review: Safe Travels

By Michael Block 

Horton Foote is a master of depicting life naturally. With a wealth of plays, audiences seem to be drawn to his work. Foote’s The Traveling Lady returns to the stage in a briefer production at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Directed by Austin Pendleton, The Traveling Lady is simply put, fine.
The Traveling Lady tells the story of Georgette Thomas who travels to a small Texas town upon the release of her husband from prison. When she arrives, she learns that the truth she believed is not quite reality as her husband, Henry, a man of notorious reputation, has already been released for some time. Learning about the kindness of strangers, Georgette must make a decision about her future for herself and her young daughter. Set in the backyard of an upstanding woman of town, The Traveling Lady shows the ways of life in 1950s Texas. Running a little over ninety minutes, if you sat questioning if you missed some crucial information, you’re not wrong. Originally written as a play in three acts, this is an updated script from Foote. To make the play a modest length, information has been sliced and diced. The most noticeable plot hole is the speed in which Slim Murray, the brother of backyard’s owner, Clara Breedlove, falls for Georgette. Love at first sight is a thing but this was the least believable element in this realistic play. There are some other minor characters and their arcs that do not seem completely fleshed out, but it doesn’t alter the overall picture. Austin Pendleton directs this production unobtrusively.  It’s simply stated. The characters are kindhearted. Pendleton doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary but honor Foote’s play. The stakes are generally minimal. Even in the moments of danger, with Henry and Mrs. Mavis’ disappearance, there was never a sense that it wouldn’t get resolved. To bring the world to life, scenic and lighting designer Harry Feiner used atmospheric lighting and an array of furniture to tell the story. The pleasant design did its job well for the tight stage. The only trouble was Pendleton’s use of the fourth wall. To add an extra entrance, he utilized the aisle in the audience. The rules of the stage were defined a bit strangely as there were moments were characters would conveniently not hear the conversation mere feet away. Kudos to those who saw the lightning bugs Feiner placed during the dusk scenes. With a play like this, atmosphere is essential. Sound designer Ryan Rumery’s soundscape allowed the silences to be filled naturally. When it came to styling the company, Theresa Squire allowed the garments to match the decade.
photo by Carol Rosegg
The charm of Horton Foote’s play is the kindness and authenticity of his characters. When the company found the hints of humor in Foote’s text, the play was alive. Leading the batch was Lynn Cohen and Karen Ziemba as mother-daughter combo Mrs. Mavis and Sitter Mavis respectively. Both Cohen and Ziemba were absolutely delightful. You almost wished the pair could have their own spin-off. Supporting characters often have more freedom to be the comic reliefs of the story. The Mavises were those here. Georgette Thomas is a highly emotional character. Jean Lichty played right into the emotions. And it often was unvaried. Then again, Georgette is quite high-strung throughout. As Slim, Larry Bull’s allure was subtle yet affective. The Slim and Georgette plot line is a defining force in this play and Bull defined why it was prominent.
From a modern lens, there are some interesting takeaways in Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady. You can look at it as a period piece about a strong woman’s independence. It would help explain why this play now. The Traveling Lady is a safe production where you know exactly what you’re getting. And sometimes, that’s just fine.