By Robert Heide
The word from here to WestView readers, and to theatergoers in general, is that they ought to make a beeline to the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, between Bedford and Hudson Streets) to see a great production of The Traveling Lady. Written by Horton Foote—a master craftsman known as the “American Chekhov”—the play has a top-notch cast and is superbly directed by Austin Pendleton (I personally consider myself lucky to have worked under Foote at the Playwrights Directors Unit, which he conducted for one year at the Actors Studio).
The Traveling Lady was first produced in New York City in 1954 at The Playhouse Theater. It starred the legendary Broadway actress Kim Stanley in the lead role of Georgette Thomas, now beautifully enacted by Jean Lichty. Georgette has been desperately on the run, traveling from town to town across Texas in search of her husband Henry Thomas, who was recently let out of the penitentiary. Georgette arrives at a bus stop in a small Texas town with her six-year-old daughter Margaret Rose, played by Korinne Tetlow, who is enchanting and touching in her Off-Broadway debut. A combination of Shirley Temple and Jane Withers, Tetlow has what used to be described as IT in the old days.
Georgette is stunned when she arrives to discover that her husband is in town staying with a middle-aged temperance fanatic and spinster named Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner) who is trying to help him through his decline into alcoholism—which got him into prison in the first place. She brags about his newly won sobriety to a neighbor, Sitter Mavis (Karen Ziemba), who is looking for her aged and demented mother, an old lady filled with a sense of outrageous spunk, fun, and pure delight (played by Lynn Cohen). This gal is a real laugh as she wanders everywhere, disappearing, appearing, complaining, joking, and yearning to be free of the hypocrisy of small town life. All of this takes place in the backyard of the home of a matronly woman named Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi). The four women are skillful actresses with great, heartfelt charm and feeling.
Soon, Georgette is invited to stay at Clara’s house until she decides what to do or where to go. Clara’s brother, a tall, good-looking, but repressed man named Slim Murray (Larry Bull) is just right as the awkward and shy character who develops a crush on the attractive traveling lady. When Henry Thomas, the errant husband (brilliantly played by P.J. Sosko) shows up in Mrs. Breedlove’s backyard, he is stunned to see his wife and child in town already. Her unexpected arrival and their reunion throws him for a loop; he runs off on a drunken tear, stealing silverware and money from his benefactress Mrs. Tillman, taking her car to boot. He is, of course, caught by the sheriff (Ron Piretti) who throws him in jail.
There is a surprise ending I will not reveal here. But bring along your hanky, as there was not a dry eye in the audience. A sense of humanity and a great compassion for the people of Texas are evident in the writing of this fine play, one of Foote’s very best, in my estimation.
The show runs for one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, and I found it riveting. Contributing to the satisfaction and enjoyment of viewing this play is the set and lighting design by Harry Feiner, costume design by Theresa Squire, and sound design and music composition by Ryan Rumery.