If you've been keeping up with the Horton Foote Festival, you might have noticed that the characters in the works written in the past 30 years have, for the most part, been darker, more flawed and, in many cases, more interesting. Even if he still set the works in the '20s or '30s, it's as if, by the '80s, Foote had written long enough to learn that the former or current residents of Harrison, Texas, weren't all about gingham-upholstered nostalgia, and that unsavory traits could have multiple layers.
For examples of this trend, refer to the Foote Fest's entries from Dallas Theater Center (Dividing the Estate, written and set in '80s, and revisited 20 years later), Kitchen Dog Theater (3 Foote, one-acts from the '80s) and Uptown Players (The Young Man From Atlanta, written in the '90s). The exception from this Festival was Talking Pictures, presented by Stage West, which was written in 1990 but still had the feel of one of his earlier works.
Making another case for this point is the final professional production to open in the festival, The Roads to Home, an odd assortment of related one-acts given a better-than-it-deserves production by Theatre Three, directed with beautiful detail by Terry Dobson.
In A Nightingale, we meet the three main women of these stories: busybody Mabel (Pam Dougherty), her neighbor Vonnie (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) and Annie Gayle (Renee Kelly), who's obviously not sane. It's 1924 in Houston, on Mabel's back porch, and the conversation occasionally turns to the place where they all once lived: Harrison.
In The Dearest of Friends, it's a few months later in the same location, and Annie Gayle is only talked about, having been taken away. The confict is the failing marriage of Vonnie and her husband Eddie (Andrew Kasten), who has been having an affair. We also meet Mabel's husband, the easy-going and nap-loving Jack (Jerry Crow).
Then, four years later, Spring Dance is set in Austin. Annie Gayle is in the garden of an asylum, chatting with fellow crazies Cecil (Michael Serrecchia), Dave (Aaron Parks) and Greene (Shane Beeson). Inside the building, the event of this play's title is going on.
Throughout the plays, we've met the husbands of the women (Annie Gayle's husband, played by Max Swarner, was briefly in Nightingale), but they are secondary to the friends that surround the women in each play. Because of very different circumstances, these ladies have all left their home of Harrison, and it's obvious that at some level, they'd like to return. But they can't. That's what's sad and poignant about these characters, especially Annie Gayle. Unlike Carrie Watts of A Trip to Bountiful, they're not going to find their road home.
The play feels belabored in making that point, especially Spring Dance. It might be tougher to watch if not for the performances at T3. The men are good, but the women make it all worth it.
Kelly is heartbreaking. Pyeatt has the right amount of spunk. Dougherty, playing a gossipy character who would do anything for her friends, has pitch-perfect comic timing. Her speeches and reactions rival the funniest aspects of the entire Foote Festival.
Director Dobson gives them plenty of business on Bruce R. Coleman's lovely set, without it ever feeling forced or out of place. This is how take a not-great play and make it worth savoring.
◊ The Roads to Home is part of the area-wide Horton Foote Festival. Read more about it and see a schedule of events here, which has been updated with links to all the reviews.