Austin Playhouse, 3601 S. Congress, 476-0084
Through Dec. 18
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.
"Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me." The old country hymn is never far from the lips of Carrie Watts, the elderly protagonist of Horton Foote's best-known play. She must sing it, she remarks to a stranger at one point, a hundred times a day. Small wonder, then, that the hymn is a constant source of irritation to Mrs. Watts' daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae, setting on edge nerves already jangled from spending all day, every day, with the older woman in the close confines of a three-room apartment in Houston.
But in this quietly affecting drama, the Christian anthem serves a higher purpose than that of a flash point of conflict between the two women, or even a signifier that Mrs. Watts is a woman of abiding faith. It tells us her story. "Come home, come home," calls the refrain. "You who are weary, come home." Mrs. Watts, worn and unsettled from her years of captivity in a cramped, urban cell far from the farm of her youth, hears the call of her home, feels its pull, and is resolved to return to it, even if that means lying to her son, stealing away like a thief, and making the journey alone. Though we never hear it in the play, the hymn's third verse no doubt drives Mrs. Watts onward: "Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing, passing from you and from me; shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming, coming for you and for me."
With the simplicity and modesty of that hymn, Austin Playhouse's production tracks this unlikely Ulysses' odyssey from Bayou City to Bountiful, the small town on the gulf where Mrs. Watts was reared and then reared Ludie, her sole surviving child of three. A cot, a rocker, a table, and a bed are all that are needed to suggest the tight quarters in which these characters live. Three chairs make up a bench in the bus station; when shifted, they become seats on the bus itself. We don't need trappings more elaborate than these any more than we need speeches that describe the characters' psychological conditions in extravagant detail. Foote's spare prose imparts so much about these figures; the common courtesies and passing references to past persons and events reveal their histories, something of the moral polestars that guide them, and their own measure of their lives against the tide of time.
Here, the burden of time on these people is eloquently expressed. Brian Coughlin's Ludie, troubled by his failure to provide a suitable home for his wife and mother and anxiously anticipating asking for a raise at work, shoulders his cares like physical weights; they seem to be perpetually pressing down on him, and projecting all the gentle decency and dignity that Coughlin does, his plight pierces our hearts. As Jessie Mae, Amy Kay Raymond exudes the brittleness of bone china, a quality she frequently exploits to comic effect with impressive finesse. But she also lets us glimpse beneath that jittery surface of the character's fearful sense of the ticking clock, of life turning in directions she hasn't foreseen and may not wish to follow.
Whether Jessie Mae grasps it or not, that concern is what's pushing her mother-in-law back to Bountiful. Time has led Mrs. Watts away from the person she was, and she feels the only place she can understand how she came to be who she is is her home. In Foote's cosmology, home is not a nostalgic abode of eternal sunshine and unconditional love; it is the place that shapes us, for good or ill, and thus the place where we may best know ourselves. Before she reaches it, Mary Agen Cox's Mrs. Watts is a portrait of agitation, nervously rubbing one wrist, darting glances this way and that, and if she isn't sitting in tight-lipped silence, she's chatting up a blue streak. But on the porch of the old Watts manse, now largely a ruin, Cox settles into a luminous calm. She speaks of the farms of yesterday and the forests of today that replaced them, but then imagines new farms tomorrow replacing those, and forests then overtaking them. As she locates herself in those cycles of history, Cox conveys it with a peace that passes all understanding.
Softly and tenderly, Foote tells us of one woman's passage back to her birthplace. With sensitivity and true feeling, director Don Toner and his talented company carry us home.
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