Few male playwrights can match Horton Foote for the women he sparked to life, even in such male-centric works as his Oscar winning screenplays for To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies and none more so than in The Trip To Bountiful. Like Tennessee Williams, Foote wrote fully-formed female characters — victims and predators, sensualists and ahedonics — who typically, in the Southern tradition, could be at once barely connected romantics and durable pragmatists. The Roads To Home, a 1982 triptych of connected one-acts given an exquisite revival by off-Broadway’s Primary Stages, features three such women (one of whom, inevitably, is portrayed by Hallie Foote, an incomparable interpreter of her late father’s work).
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The first scene, “A Nightingale,” is set in the tidy Houston home of Mabel Votaugh (Foote) on a spring morning in 1924. A lonely, homesick émigré from nearby Harrison — a stand-in for Foote’s hometown of Wharton, the font of his work and the source of so many indelible characters — Mabel is entertaining neighbor Vonnie Hayhurst (Harriet Harris), recently returned from a trip home to Monroe, Louisiana. Vonnie expresses her relief that Annie Gaye Long (Rebecca Brooksher) no longer is around to monopolize their time, having moved across town, a long streetcar ride away.
But then Annie arrives, and it’s soon evident why Vonnie, who can be smug, small-minded and mean, dislikes her. Annie is a flibbertigibbet teetering on a moonbeam. She’s out there. Her husband (Dan Bittner), at his wits’ end, comes to fetch her home, to no avail. Annie is cunning in her lunatic way, oblivious of her husband’s warning that her increasingly odd behavior will force him to have her committed to the state mental asylum in Austin.
Six months later, in “The Dearest of Friends,” Annie is gone. Vonnie confesses to Mabel that her husband Eddie (Matt Sullivan) is having an affair and wants a divorce. Mabel’s husband Jack (Devon Abner) knows what’s been going on but when Eddie shows up, Jack shows no interest in getting involved in talking sense into him. Mabel tries to comfort Vonnie, though Hallie Foote never lets us forget that this is a friendship complicated by Mabel’s essential kindness, in contrast with Vonnie, a busybody getting her overdue comeuppance.
“Spring Dance,” after the intermission, is all about Annie. Set in the Austin institution mentioned in the first scene, it features two more men vying for a spot on Annie’s empty dance card. Through an eerie kind of byplay that wavers in and out of reality among the three of them, we are
somewhat shocked to discover that Annie has been there for four years. And if the thread weaving these three scenes together seems at first difficult to discern, it comes into focus through Annie (played by Brooksher with evanescent tenderness) as we realize that for each of these women, home is an ideal, and the road to it is precious, elusive memory.
Indeed, little happens in the way of plot in The Roads To Home, and yet Michael Wilson has staged the show with such truthful economy of emotion that every moment rings true and cuts deep. Which is how it goes with the fine, rich work of Horton Foote. From Hallie Foote we expect such subtle realism; the surprise is Harris, usually in broader form as a nasty wit but here less wicked than desperate. Like Mabel and Annie, Vonnie is racing time against fading memory. They’re holding on for dear life.
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