Cast gives crisp, polished performances in ‘The Old Friends’

By Robert Donahoo, Contributing Writer,
September 3, 2014

“The Old Friends,” the title of Horton’s Foote’s play now on stage at the Alley Theatre, seems such a comforting, nostalgic phrase, but as in all Foote’s best work, comfort and nostalgia give way to the dark complexities and uncertainties of ordinary life. For anyone who confuses Foote with soft sentiment, this production is a Texas-sized reminder that his work paints a challenging reality where the line between laughter and pain is thin and cutting.

Anyone who has lived long in the Lone Star state will feel he knows these characters, rooted for them and endured them: the wealthy woman who uses her money like a billiards stick that can make delicate shots or serve as a club; the fading beauty whose lust is driven as much by her desire to stay young as her libido; the wandering failure who has come home to regroup; the middle-aged man who knows he has one last chance to be the man he has finally realized he wants to be. They are our old friends. We know them, care about them, but we sometimes wish we didn’t do either.

Every aspect of the Alley’s production, guided brilliantly by director Michael Wilson, works to keep the refusal to resolve these characters and their messy lives in front of the audience. The interior sets are, with a key exception, only partial walls whose gaps let in a rural Texas skyline as open and unending as the walls are incomplete. Costumes, from an old woman’s house dress to the class divisions of high heels and flats, work boots and loafers, seem to grow out of the characters rather than merely drape the actors.

And the cast gives uniformly crisp and polished performances. As the selfish and insecure Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvestor Ratliff, Betty Buckley, who made the part her own in its New York production, is as dazzling as the diamonds she flaunts. She lets us into the pain beneath her big hair while generating laughter as tinkling as the ice in the booze she guzzles. She uses her dead husband’s money to close herself off from the pain of those around her — isolating herself in a droll pettiness that leaves her surrounded by broken people and props. She never ceases to compete against her old friend Julia Price (Veanne Cox), a woman of enormous sexual appetite, a wallet almost as bloated as Gertrude’s, and a better preserved figure. Each tries to use the other, provoke the other, and maintain an advantage however possible.

In contrast, Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, offers her wounded Sibyl Borden — a woman who has learned hard lessons from a life of struggle and disappointment. Without ever suggesting Sibyl is merely pathetic, Foote creates a woman we can root for without ever feeling certain — even at the final curtain — that she will not succumb to her losses.

When Sibyl returns home after her ne’er-do-well husband has dropped dead in the airport, these three women are brought into a struggle — or maybe a dance — to show to themselves they are alive and vital. Though the men in the play, Cotter Smith as Howard Ratliff, Gertrude’s middle-aged brother-in law and eternal escort, and Jay Sullivan as Tom Underwood, a young stud looking for the key to wealth and success, are almost incidental to their story, they each have their own tale. Sullivan gives his usual high quality performance in what is the play’s lesser role, but Smith truly astounds by creating the most believable stage Texan I’ve seen. The rhythm of his speech and the gait of his motions, whether in a sport coat or jeans, are all eerily familiar and a blessed relief from typical stage characterizations of Texas men as cartoons or merely ordinary. He is never less than authentic.
An equal authenticity marks the return to the Alley’s stage from retirement in Brenham of Annalee Jefferies as Mamie Borden, Sibyl’s aged mother-in-law. She never settles for a stereotype of aging but in what could be a forgettable role, she marks the generational shifts that lie in the background of this play.

Some audience members may well leave this production feeling it never quite resolves all the situations it creates, but such an openness is clearly Foote’s intent. People don’t change and life doesn’t settle into clarity because it’s time for the actors to take their much-deserved bows. The joy lies in the journey — a cliché perhaps but one that this play suggests is just another old friend.

Robert Donahoo is a professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.