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The Good Foote

The gentle Talking Pictures is as good an entree into the Goodman’s celebration of Horton Foote as what’s on the mainstage.

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TALKING PICTURES GOODMAN THEATRE

Horton Foote is all southern, no gothic. Search all you want, you'll find no buried child in the garden, no skeletons of inconvenient ancestors in the family closets. As a gentleman of the old school, Foote couldn't possibly write a scene where a woman is forced to fellate a chicken leg, a la Tracy Letts's trailer park gorefest Killer Joe. Which is exactly why his characters feel fresh and unbelabored. Foote presents them without any prosecutorial agenda. He doesn't ask that they stand as proof that those who live their lives away from the grit and glare of urban centers are just as dark and compromised as their city brethren. But neither does he coat them with a false sheen of nostalgia for simpler times. Things have never been simple, and life catches us up in the sweep of confounding change no matter where we live.

The constancy of change underpins much of Foote's work, which is now being celebrated at the Goodman Theatre with a festival of four of his plays. (Foote is also a screenwriter with credits that include To Kill a Mockingbird, and Tender Mercies.) The Trip to Bountiful—his 1953 teleplay, turned into a 1985 film starring Geraldine Page—opens on the Goodman's main stage next month, in time for the playwright's 92nd birthday. But Foote's 1990 work, Talking Pictures, now up in the Goodman's smaller Owen Theatre in a finely tuned production directed by Henry Wishcamper, might be an even better introduction to his world.

Like Faulkner, with his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Foote has a preferred locale for his stories: Harrison, a fictional burg on the Texas gulf coast based on Foote's own hometown of Wharton. It's the summer of 1929, and though Black Friday is still a few months away, storm clouds are gathering. The Jackson family may have to sell their home and move to another town if Mr. Jackson, a train engineer, is "bumped" out of his job by a man with more seniority. This is disheartening news for their boarder, Myra, a divorcee (or "grass widow," in the parlance of the times) who lives in a small room with her teenage son, Pete, and plays piano at the local silent movie house. The advent of talkies threatens her livelihood just as she finds out that Pete would prefer to live with his remarried father (and his father's backyard swimming pool) in Houston. Myra is wooed by Willis, a goodhearted construction worker who lives next door, but the arrival of Willis's not-yet-ex-wife, Gladys, and her jealous, gun-toting paramour, Ashenback, complicates the courtship.

Other signs of change resonate with today's immigration debate. Estaquio, the Mexican son of a Baptist missionary, charms the Jacksons with his optimism and his enthusiastic, open-throated rendition of "Rock of Ages" in Spanish. But that's not enough for him to be invited to join them on the porch. He's strictly a yard companion, not quite acceptable as an equal.

The play's title refers not only to the cinematic innovation threatening Myra's career but also to the way the two Jackson daughters, prim Vesta and irrepressible Katie Bell, take in the movies. Forbidden to attend themselves, they depend upon Myra to fill them in on the stories and the stars, peppering her with questions about everyone from Ramon Novarro to Rudolph Valentino. (At times the script plays like a sanitized recap of Kenneth Anger's scurrilous Hollywood Babylon.) Myra's recounting of the Al Jolson tearjerker The Singing Fool—in which a singer attains fame but loses his son—leaves them bereft and also serves as a handy parallel to Myra's own struggles with Pete.

In a way Talking Pictures provides a complement to Larry McMurtry's novel (and 1971 film) The Last Picture Show, in which the demise of the local movie house is a metaphor for the death throes of a small Texas town in the 1950s. And like McMurtry, Foote seems to love all his quietly restless characters equally; there are no star turns written into the script, though Gabriel Notarangelo's Estaquio is a winsome scene-stealer. But in Myra, Foote has created a supremely affecting and sympathetic portrait of struggling single motherhood that transcends eras. Jenny McKnight's performance is exquisitely graceful, its subtlety enhanced by Wishcamper's intimate in-the-round staging and Tom Burch's lovely but unfussy set. (This is the first time the flexible Owen space has been used in this effective configuration.) When Myra realizes that Pete wants to live with his dad, McKnight's face conveys the complex mix of anguish over losing a son's companionship and guilt that she can't provide the material comforts offered by her hard-drinking ex, Gerard. Bubba Weiler's Pete is no carbon-copy petulant adolescent either: he's a good kid who loves his mom but also desperately wants a chance to see more of the world than Harrison has to offer.

Villainy isn't Foote's strong suit, and that's a blessing here. Judy Blue's Mrs. Jackson has all the prejudices of a woman of her time but she isn't shrewish or closed-minded—just cautious and uncertain in the face of strangers like Estaquio. Both Jason Wells's taciturn Mr. Jackson and Philip Earl Johnson's Willis are models of unvarnished decency, but the strain of being stand-up guys in a world of four-flushers like Gerard and Ashenback reveals itself in their small shifts of posture and vocal inflections. Ashenback ends up being a greater danger to himself than anyone else, and the swaggering Gerard and voluble Gladys are, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle. If these two troublemakers have a fatal flaw , Foote suggests that it lies in their unwillingness to confront the darker realities of life head-on. Both of them proudly proclaim that they only like "happy pictures." Nothing seismic happens in this gentle play, but the inexorable tension of inevitable change is in the air. Foote's warm, funny, plainspoken characters, heroic in their own quiet ways, provide a welcome relief from the hothouse grotesques beloved of so many other chroniclers of small-town southern life.   v

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