Southern Comforts: Jayne Houdyshell stands out in Harrison, TX’s excellent ensemble

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


Photo by James Leynse

Every now and then a veteran performer finds a role that becomes an event, the kind of career flashpoint that brings him or her to the minds of the masses and that also allows those who’ve always been fans to pat themselves on the back with knowing pride. Think of 2008, the year that Kate Winslet only finally emerged as a major star in 2008 on the heels of her Oscar campaigns in The Reader and Revolutionary Road. Or of 2005, the year that The Light in the Piazza finally woke everyone up to the transcendent skills of its star, Victoria Clark.

Mid-career character actress Jayne Houdyshell might well be having one of those moments this year. The actress, whose credits include The Receptionist and The Language Archive and Tony-nominated turns in Well and Follies, offers yet another stellar supporting turn in Primary Stages’ Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote, the satisfying triptych of three twangy one-acts from the late, great playwright, directed by Pam MacKinnon. The only problem is you have to wait until the third play to get to Houdyshell.

Harrison plays like a compressed version of Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle, and covers similar terrain. It also again features Foote’s daughter, the actress Hallie, who rules “Blind Date,” the evening’s first one-act, which takes place in 1928. As Delores, a syrupy-sweet aunt who arranges for a friend’s mortician son, Felix (Evan Jonigkeit), to come over and meet her niece, Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green). While nothing that cannot be predicted occurs, MacKinnon establishes a wonderful sense of the rhythms of time and place, and connects with Foote’s look at an already emerging generation gap between Foote’s genteel Delores and Sarah Nancy’s abandon of social graces, hilariously imbued by Green. Jonigkeit nails Felix’s period-perfect demeanor, a combination of earnestness and unknowing arrogance.

“The One-Armed Man,” like “Blind Date,” also occurs in 1928 but creates a much darker tone than its predecessor. An unemployed millworker, McHenry (Alexander Cendese), who lost his job when he lost his arm working with a cotton gin, angrily confronts his boss (Jeremy Bobb). Though it’s a short vignette, MacKinnon and her cast manage to make this segment feel both timely and harrowing. (Also impressive are the quick changes of Marion Williams’ great sets and Kaye Voyce’s period costumes, as well as Tyler Micoleau’s mood-appropriate lighting.)

It’s the final work, “The Midnight Caller,” though, that provides Harrison with much of its backbone, and Houdyshell isn’t the only sturdy performer onboard. Houdyshell’s unmarried schoolteacher, Rowena, lives in a boardinghouse run by Mrs. Crawford (also Foote). While she knows her die in life has been cast, two other tenants, a cutting Alma Jean (wonderfully played by a scissor-tongued Mary Bacon) and an optimistic “Cutie” (Green again, and markedly different from her Sarah Nancy), are approaching the twilight of their marriageable years. A new arrival, Helen (Jenny Dare Paulin), finds herself caught between a divorced salesman (Bobb again) and her ex, Harvey (Cendese). Taking place in the 1950s, “Caller” works as a fitting rebuke of some of the propriety proffered by “Date.” And no one embodies all of Foote’s thoughts and feelings more than Houdyshell, who provides a master class in quiet observation, obstinacy and heartbreak just sitting in a chair. Performances like this will ensure a healthy afterlife for Mr. Foote’s many works.

Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote
Presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., NYC. Through Sept. 15. http://primarystages.org/harrisontx

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