Intermission Talk

 

“A Traveling Lady”

Tries to Revisit Her Past,

 But Ends Up Instead in “1984”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

One wonders if certain spokespeople from a certain administration,  preparing for on-camera talkbacks, attended “1984,” and subconsciously absorbed the mantra “Words don’t matter.”  George Orwell’s iconic reading-list novel, penned in 1949, now belongs to the group of works that have made the journey from being harbingers of an unknowable future, through the stage where it has earned a place as a given standard written by an author who has become famous and familiar because of the notoriety of his/her work, and finally to the present, when it is okay to look back on it with a certain nostalgia for its seeming eagerness to deconstruct current conditions as proof of the original work’s naive approach to analysis.

Thirty-five years have passed between the story’s ‘present ,’ which is 1949,  to the time period when the story takes place, in its title year.  Conditions are now in place – the ever-present surveillance by an all-seeing, all- controlling central government political entity – that actualize what the story’s title has come to mean in contemporary usage.  Now, if you are willing to take in everything the production, at the grandly restored Hudson Theatre, has to offer, ambiguities and all, this will be the full meal plus coffee and dessert.   If you are among that eager group who take pleasure in finishing your sentence, even when they’re wrong about it, look elsewhere.

Orwell’s POV character is an Everyman named Winston.  He is ’employed’  ridding the language and biographical records [people who’ve been branded having been ‘un-personed’]  which have been  deemed offensive, by the central command, all the while harboring a secret repulsion for that process and for those who invented and administer it.  Ever-present  two-way large monitors monitor the fidelity of everyone.   His chance meeting with Julia, another sympathetic fellow-traveler, offers him some  measure of hope, portrayed in her riveting Broadway debut by Olivia Wilde.  Their secret trysts in an overlooked nook, which we can witness via simulcasting, reveal  just how devoid of ‘human’ behavior all lives have become.

A series of events demonstrate just how routine this cleansing of any offenses or offenders has become.  They take on a grim, jolting  pattern,

not unlike a gruesome ‘Groundhog Day’ familiarity.  What does not follow a pattern is their occurrence.  The only semblance of true relief comes in the ‘person’ of a middle-aged, well-dressed, mannerly guide named O’Brien, [the always reliable Reed Birney], who identifies Winston as someone with unusual qualities, worthy of special attention and treatment.

Thus ends any shot at redemption.  What follows is an unraveling of any remaining ability to witness the wholesale destruction of Winston’s identity, because it is not his physical being that is at stake here and now, it is Winston’s soul, his identity.  As the destruction of his realness progresses, it takes on an escalating level of violence that can border, for some, on sadistic porn.  What Winston is forced to endure, lacking any clear, linear objective , does  reveal the nature of the undertaking, as a kind of dead-end game of doomed survival in which the destruction of the chosen one’s will to survive intact is the goal.

Comparisons to the original source material has some value, to a point.  What does transfer most definitely is the severity of its randomness.

Nearly over-the-top uses of stark lighting choices and skull-piercing sound contribute to an overall sensory overload at times, aimed at destroying Winston’s being.  It is a theatrical experience that can mesmerize.   Leave the kids at home.

Unlike the single-minded, single-purposed central character in Horton Foote’s brilliant “The Trip to Bountiful,” the woman referred to in the title of his play “The Traveling Lady” seems to be at the mercy of the too many unforeseen forces.  Georgette [Jean Richty] gets off the bus in small town Harrison, with one suitcase and one little girl.  She’s expecting to meet her husband Henry, who’s been incarcerated in the State Penitentiary, but due for release today.  With no place to stay and no known relatives – this is her husband’s home town – she rests in the bus station, where a courtly gentleman [George Morfogen]  lets her know that he has a few places to rent.  As the local judge, he has a reputation to uphold in terms of who he rents to, so he proceeds, as gently as possible, to have her admit her husband’s circumstances.  It’s then that she leans that Henry [PJ Sosko] has been in town for a month.

Set in the back yard of Mrs. Clara Breedlove [Angelina Fiordelisi], the story brings to center stage each of the major and minor characters, most with issues to deal with, and all of them cut from the same homey chintz fabric that positions them as the trustworthy smaller-town cousins of most William Inge characters.  It has been Georgette’s lifeline dream that her little family will finally find itself in friendly territory, ready to settle down and possibly help Henry avoid the perils of drinking, which led to his arrest.  Foote does show us a gentler side of Henry, who plays guitar and sings special songs for his daughter.

Horton Foote has always been recognized as one of America’s most valued dramatists, for introducing us to the worlds of people we might only glimpse from the train as we pass through its territory.  This particular back yard seems to have become somewhat of a stopping place for residents going to or from somewhere. Next door neighbor Sitter Mavis [Annette O’Toole]] must always be tending to her quirky mother [Lynn Cohen], who wanders.   And Slim [Larry Bull], a widower who works part time at the station, rents a room nearby.

These carefully drawn characters, none of whom lean to hysteria or melodrama, try to cope with their burdens and blessings.  When Henry finally reunites with Georgette, it doesn’t play out as she has imagined, leaving her once again with a suitcase, a little girl and not much else.  Whenever she needs assistance here, it’s Slim who comes through with a solution, no strings attached.  Except he seems to be falling in love with her.

This uniformly compelling cast, under the astute direction of Austin Pendleton, “The Traveling Lady” doesn’t measure up to other works by Foote,  such as his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man from Atlanta,” and the Oscar-winning original screenplay for “Tender Mercies.”   Here, he leans a little too much on spoken exposition, yet  it’s evident how Foote has been able to pull from personal life experiences to craft so many diverse, yet universally-challenged men and women.

On Book

This used to be called High Summer, when humidity prevents you from holding your attention on any one thought for more than a couple dozen moments.  This is the best time to single out short or one-act plays for your ‘books to read at the beach’ list, starting with “The Best American Short Plays – 2014 – 2015,” edited by William Demastes [Applause Books]  . . .  For theatrically-minded material, look no further than “Collected Essays,” by Arthur Miller, which demonstrates how this dazzling wordsmith is a master story-teller, regardless of the medium. . .and treat yourself to a banquet of Horton Foote gems.  “Getting Frankie Married – and Afterwards,” along with other plays by Foote are in a collection from Smith and Kraus . . . Jerry Tallmer wrote the introduction to “Horton Foote – Four New Plays,” which includes the celebrated “Dividing the Estate,” is published by Smith and Kraus . . . and an introduction by John Guare opens another collection “Horton Foote – Three Plays,” from Northwestern . . . and if you were not fortunate to catch “The Traveling Lady” at the Cherry Lane, pick up a copy from Dramatists Play Service.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts, Inc. following its Best Play Award-winning presentation at the New York International Fringe Festival.  His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge.  His performing arts features have appeared in Parade, Reader’s Digest, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics, and several other publications. He has taught theatre classes at HB Studio, the 92nd Street Y, Columbia University Teacher’s College and other sites.  His “The Test of Time” received a CableAce Best Documentary Award, for Lifetime Television.

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