The Traveling Lady
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., April 11, 2003
The Traveling Lady: Chekhov Without Snow
Auditorium on Waller Creek, through April 19
Running Time: 2 hrs
Once again, Different Stages has trolled the literary history of theatre and pulled out a pleasant, innocuous little drama, this time by Texas playwright Horton Foote. Literary is an apt description, as Foote's writing might be better put to use in a novel, so light is the play's theatrical impact. The characters of Foote's small coastal Texas town are struggling -- although struggling may be too strong a word -- with their personal foibles and fears, and the audience is the observer of numerous conversations in which members of this slightly dissatisfied community air their particular malaise or desires, steadfastly clinging to the status quo, no matter how disappointing. It is Chekhov without snow.
The plot concerns a young woman who has moved from Tyler with her 6-year-old daughter in an attempt to reunite with her ex-convict husband in his hometown of Harrison. It doesn't work out, although a better alternative appears. What little plot there is in this snapshot of 1950s small-town Texas creaks and groans under obese bouts of melodrama. Most of the story's twists and turns feel forced. But Foote's passion for writing about small Texas towns echoes that of a landscape painter, so the supporting characters that inhabit Harrison are detailed and realistic, and the actors give honest and heartfelt portrayals of these awkward, kind-hearted folks. Gay Gaughan-Hurst takes on Mrs. Mavis, constantly running away to her daughter's consternation. Gaughan-Hurst plays the senile old biddy's reflective moments with lovely candor, and she has a fine comedic sense throughout, although some of her scene-stealing antics seem a bit much. As concerned daughter Sitter Mavis, Melanie Dean provides the perfect balance of thinly veiled pissed-offedness and genuine, panic-induced misery at her mother's escapades. Sarah Seaton portrays homeowner and town anchor Clara Breedlove in a performance that is calm and strong. Kathleen Lawson gives evangelistic zeal to Mrs. Tillman, hell-bent -- or perhaps heaven-bent -- on reclaiming the lost souls that stray through her small-town idyll.
One of those souls is Henry Thomas, would-be music star, ex-con, and alcoholic, played by Joel Brent Gross. Gross is assured when Henry is "on," but when Henry self-destructs, Gross' acting becomes wild and selfish. Jessica Medina plays Henry's traveling wife, Georgette. Foote has her crying an awful lot or waxing expository in a historical or personal vein. Still, when Medina gets some serious stuff to work with, she mixes frailty with wonder to create a truly sympathetic heroine. Director Joel Winston Crabtree plays Slim Murray, Clara Breedlove's brother, a restless soul drawn to the lady Georgette. Crabtree took on the role as cover for an injured actor, but you wouldn't know it to see his sensitive performance.
Crabtree's unexpected shift from directorial to acting duties, however, has resulted in some loose ends in the way scenes play out. Steve Pire's island of porches looks good but includes seating arrangements that block sightlines; and Crabtree has allowed his cast to deliver speeches turned away from fellow conversationalists; poetic or not, the inhabitants of Foote's hamlet of Harrison look each other in the eye. That is the intimate nature of small-town soul searching.