Shhhhhh. Be very, very quiet. You see, the Horton Foote Festival has officially begun.
If this were an Edward Albee festival, perhaps we'd be yelling. If it were a David Mamet one, we'd be louder and foul of mouth. But it's Horton Foote, and judging from Stage West's out-of-the-gate entry, the 1990 play Talking Pictures, we're going to be using our inside voice—a lot.
Quiet dramas were Foote's thing, telling stories of simple small-town Texans with real wants and whose questions and thoughts about life in the big world outside seem as relevant to the time (in this case 1929) as they are quaint to us now.
In Talking Pictures, directed by Jim Covault, Myra (Dana Schultes) is a "grass widow," or a divorced woman, and mother of young Pete (Dillon Vineyard). To scrape by, she plays piano at the silent movies in Harrison, Texas. Pete wants to spend more of his time with his father, Gerard (Brian Mathis), in Houston. Myra rents a room in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson (Michael Corolla and Amber Devlin), whose teenage daughters Katie Bell (Mikaela Krantz) and Vesta (Meg Bauman) do much of the musing about life outside of Harrison.
Meanwhile, Myra is being courted by the handsome Willis (Thomas Ward), separated and seeking a divorce from his money-grubbing wife Gladys (Jessica Cavanagh), who has taken up with Ashenback (Jeff McGee), at least until she wants what she used to have with Willis.
Foote didn't always write plays that stuck to such a well-made formula, but his more popular ones did. Talking Pictures is a great example. There are a lot of characters here who want something, although that desire doesn't come with the same level of passion we see in, say, Ms. Watts in The Trip to Bountiful. Or if it does, it's just more quiet.
Myra is worried about taking care of herself and her son if she loses her job when the "talkies" take over. Willis wants happiness and a normal life with a woman he can care about. And the heart of this play, Katie Bell, is dreaming about a future not stuck in Harrison, as her many questions about Hollywood attest. She even befriends a Mexican boy in town, Estaquio (Julian Gonzales), to the chagrin of her family. But they come around and learn to appreciate that not only does he speak "Mexican," but he can sing Protestant hymns in his native language as well. And they're beautiful.
That's also a theme of the play, accepting other races and religions, in this case anything that's not Methodist. It's lightly explored in Katie Bell's questions about Latino movie stars (they didn't call them "Latino" back then) and a discussion about Al Jolson and blackface. But it's all a backdrop to what's happening in the personal universe of these characters. They live their lives, as we all try to do, while the world keeps moving, if ever more rapidly.
The play gives us the precise kinds of conversations we might imagine from a small American town (in any state) in the late 1920s. Perhaps it still happens. We'd be naive to think that there aren't still people who have the same thoughts as Foote's characters do. There's no doubt that, on a not-so-different scale, we have the same feelings and needs.
The play's title references progress in the world (another theme in the play), and it's a work that is meant to be quietly affecting. Until Gladys and, later, Gerard, show up, the dialogue is almost at a whisper-level. Cavanagh and especially Mathis show us how good actors do supporting roles right.
Krantz and Vineyard offer up terrific performances as two very different youths, Devlin is the model of a concerned but loving and inquisitive matriarch, and Schultes nicely gets inside the mindset of a woman who thinks with her head before her heart. The chemistry between her and Ward, who is at times too quiet, carries the play.
The play is purposefully slow, reminiscent of a bygone era. But Covault's production doesn't dawdle. It just moves along at a leisurely pace, like floating in a rubber tube down the Sabine river.
◊ Talking Pictures is part of the area-wide Horton Foote Festival. Read more about it here, and see a schedule of events.