event musings: horton foote + kim stanley = endless delights

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Horton Foote + Kim Stanley = Endless Delights

Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote @ 59E59 (attended August 14, 2012)
Studio One: The Traveling Lady @  The Paley Center (August 19, 2012)

I dreamed myself into the world of Horton Foote‘s sensibility from my Midwestern childhood imagination long before I knew his name. Foote’s 1962 screen adaptation of  Harper Lee‘s heartbreakingly resonant 1960 American novel To Kill A Mockingbird gave me voice along with Ms. Lee’s. I didn’t learn until years later the voice we hear providing the narration of the adult Scout’s loving remembrances of the events of a fateful summer, is the uncredited voice of stage and film actress and teacher Kim Stanley. Several films including the 1985 version of The Trip to Bountiful with Geraldine Page made me a great fan of Foote’s deep simple stories.  Stories of softly-inflected voices telling and feeling the stories of gently inflected lives inform my involvement in and appreciation of the current Foote Family Festival hosted by Primary Stages and the Paley Center in New York City. There are readings and discussions past and yet to come, a fully realized evening of Horton Foote’s one acts produced by Primary Stages on stage at 59E59 Theatres now, and auxiliary programming at locations such as the Paley Center for Media. And then — there’s Kim Stanley.

The Preparation: Why These Reflections Are Not a Review

I have worked several times with fine folks at Primary Stages in a few different capacities. In Spring 2011 I traveled as a Teaching Artist to a Queens high school classroom to work with students, preparing them to read, study, write about their experiences attending a Primary Stages season play. In this case they saw the world premiere of A.R. Gurney‘s Black Tie. We blogged about it.

Dramaturgical research on selected Foote Festivals and related resources.

In mid 2011 I was contacted by Primary Stages to pull together some research related to a Festival they had been considering for a few years. The theatre has had a long relationship with the Foote family through Horton’s plays (including 2004 production of The Day Emily Married and a 2007 production of Dividing the Estate that moved to Lincoln Center the following year), daughter Daisey Foote‘s plays (including a 2000 production of When They Speak of Rita), and the acting work of daughter Hallie Foote in all of the above.

Dramaturgical research on Foote television work.

I have first hand knowledge of a Foote festival of plays and associated programming produced by the Goodman Theater in Chicago that I brought to bear on my assigned tasks.  During the 2008 Goodman festival I was a Chicago resident and working as mentor in a Goodman co-sponsored program with young critics. We saw everything in the festival including the delightful Mr. Foote himself who was everywhere in attendance, sharing his charm, infusing the productions and panel discussions with his view of the world.

The program planners early considered screening teleplays that Foote had authored or adapted, and I was tasked with researching the details.  I was eager to identify the television writing Horton did starting in the 1950s that might be locally available.  Work assembled by fellow dramaturgs and researchers for prior festivals and recent Foote productions, with full credit, supplemented my materials.  And as dramaturgs do: I offered this work to the theatre company to use as they found fit.

Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote

Production decisions, artistic decisions, winnowing and refining has resulted in a unique bill of three Horton Foote one acts that  began previews in mid-July, opened on August 14, and will run through September 15, 2012. My research tells me that these particular one acts have never before been presented together — certainly not in New York City.  Blind Date, the evening opener, features a married couple, a young adult visiting niece, and a neighbor boy making a social call, and was first presented during the 1984-85 season at HB Playwrights Foundation along with One-Armed Man, in a two-play assembly titled Harrison, Texas.  The play was then presented in 1986 as part of Ensemble Studio Theatre‘s Marathon ’86, and in the 2008 Goodman Theater Foote festival in Chicago where I first viewed it. One-Armed Man, the Primary Stages show’s second offering, followed its appearance at HB Playwrights Foundation in 1984-85 with a one-night-only event at the Paley Center in April 2010. This play about a mill operator and a current and an ex employee explores power, rationalization, and retribution. The third play of the current assemblage, The Midnight Caller, hasn’t been on a New York stage since its run in 1956 at the Sheridan Square Playhouse. This relatively large cast play that takes place in a quiet boarding house filled with small town working people: a school teacher, a bookkeeper, a woman escaping the embarrassment of a wedding that publicly blew up before it began, and an assortment of others.

All of the plays take place in Harrison — Foote’s fictionalized version of his Texas hometown. Most of the actors handle the material movingly, and no one more simply and powerfully than Hallie Foote in two roles — as the aunt attempting to inspire some feminine charms in her straight-talking niece in Blind Date, and as the landlady ensuring the house is calm and dinner is on the table in The Midnight Caller. And this consultant, freelance dramaturg was thrilled to see in the fine print credit listings (cropped and included at right) a short credit among those provided in the program Playbill.

Paley Center Screening: The Traveling Lady (1957)

(L-R) Kim Stanley as Georgette and Brook Sewell as Margaret Rose in the short-lived 1954 Broadway production of The Traveling Lady.

Kim Stanley. The wonders of Kim Stanley. Only the promise of a rare viewing of this magical performer, recreating in a 1957 CBS Studio One broadcast the role she had created on Broadway in 1954 in Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady, could lead me to the Paley Center on a day already scheduled with a matinée and an evening performance. I was awash in theatrical scheduling this day, and as I settled into the lower level Bennack Theater screening room I wondered: was this folly?

No. The Paley Center screening of The Traveling Lady turned out to be a blissfully spent hour in the company of a version of Horton Foote’s stage play (cut down to a 60-minute time slot, further cut by several commercials), the 1957-era commercials all heralding the wonders of electronics manufacturer Westinghouse’s products, and most particularly the performances of Kim Stanley as Georgette Thomas and  the stunning Steven Hill as a local man who falls for the woman in need.

Lobby card for A Child is Waiting (1963). Garland and Lancaster in the banner at left. L-R in production still image Steven Hill, Bruce Ritchey, Gene Rowlands.

Every moment then-young Steven Hill is on the screen, and often focusing clear and intense loving energy at Stanley’s Georgette I found myself thinking of emotionally devastating moments in other Hill films: A Child is Waiting (1963) perhaps, as the architect father of a developmentally delayed son who fights then accepts his placement in an institution; or Yentl (1983) as the father of the daughter who is married off to another woman who is passing as a yeshiva boy; or Running on Empty (1988) as the conservative father of a radical daughter, both trying to do the right thing for the son and grandson they have in common. We have all these layers to bring to moments and glances and physical styles Steven Hill had as even a young man.

(L-R) Kim Stanley and Steven Hill in The Goddess (1958).

Every moment Stanley is on the screen you feel her charms, her delight, her hopes, her devastation, her resolve, in equal measure.  We have fewer examples on film for her in her 30s and 40s to which to compare her Traveling Lady than we have for Hill. For those who saw her or acted with her on stage, some of whose musings are captured in the 2003 documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, her  incandescent radiance inspires awe. Her performance as Cheri in Bus Stop (oh if she could only have been the one to create this role on-screen), causes some of her contemporaries including Elaine Stritch (who played the role of the diner owner in that production) to simply gush. We do have a few filmed Stanley performances that capture her appearance and intensity of this period. In particular, The Goddess (1958) gives us a movie star who has lost a grip on who she can trust and who she cannot, and one of the most devastatingly exposed expressions of grief — at a funeral — that may have ever been caught on film.  The CBS Studio One production of The Traveling Lady augments our understanding, at this historical remove, of Stanley’s power. She shines as a young mother who has come to meet up with her ne’er-do-well husband to introduce him to his six-year-old daughter for the first time, who engages with a gentle set of small town folk including Steven Hill as Slim, and fits neatly into the diction and world view of Foote’s created universe.

Six Degrees of Elizabeth Wilson

Elizabeth Wilson in The Graduate (1967).

An event post play opening, post film viewing, illustrated to me the “six degrees of separation” theory in concrete terms.  In my Harrison, TX opening night audience, a few rows ahead of me, sat the regal, wonderful actress Elizabeth Wilson, a woman to whom I have felt a deep connection for years for many reasons including the fact that we were both born in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  She is a friend of Primary Stages and its founder and Executive Director Casey Childs, another Grand Rapids child. Her film career has touched many others, from Picnic (1955) to The Birds (1963) to The Graduate (1967)  to The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) to Nine to Five (1980) to Regarding Henry (1991) to Quiz Show (1994). And this smiling fan just now realizes that Ms. Wilson also appears in two of the films brought to mind this past Sunday and discussed above: The Goddess (1958) and A Child is Waiting (1963). Forget Kevin Bacon — for a  filmed performance connection to much of the great acting in the 20th century (and her stage work connects even more)  I nominate Elizabeth Wilson.

Primary Stages and the coordinated events of this season’s Foote Festival have much yet to offer. Daisey Foote’s Him will begin performances in late September, and additional screenings at the Paley Center are planned. Come on along.  Elizabeth Wilson may be in your audience too.

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 20, 2012)

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