A masterpiece of dialogue, humanity, and soul depth, Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home, directed by the superb Michael Wilson and starring Hallie Foote, is a triptych of scenarios in two acts that are held together by thematic whorls: emotional stasis, inner spiritual crises, couples’ inability to communicate meaningfully so as to evolve together in happiness, personal loneliness, inability to overcome devastating loss.
Between long breaths of characterization, Foote plies the subject matter he enjoys investigating most, small-town community life in Texas. This unfolds with quiet dynamics amongst husbands and wives, neighbors and friends, and their commitment to forge through uneventful daily activities while in finer moments sharing the inner soul catastrophes that will never be resolved.
In Act One, Scene One, “A Nightingale,” Mabel Votaugh (portrayed with uncanny authenticity and uniquely insightful, character-revealing perspectives by Hallie Foote) entertains her neighbor Vonnie Hayhurst (Harriet Harris is all loquacious nervous energy and open-handed Southern congeniality). Her home-town acquaintance from Harrison, Texas, Annie Gayle Long (Rebecca Brooksher’s portrayal is effectively poignant as she devolves into isolation and unreality), also visits. Mabel and Vonnie swap light stories about themselves and family until they dig deep in the garden of the wealthy Gayles and Mabel reveals that Annie, who experienced a horrific event in her youth, now wanders Houston, rides the streetcars, and visits Mabel daily to relieve her anxiety. As we later understand, Mabel intuits that Annie hovers between reality and unreality because the pain of an incident in Harrison relentlessly haunts her.
Thanks to the superb performances, Mabel’s and Vonnie’s conversation is singular and real. We become endeared to the women’s foibles and small-town attitudes as only Horton Foote can deliver them. We are drawn in, and find their discussion of homely topics engrossing precisely because they lack adventure. Foote’s dialogue is genius; we are intrigued. The small-town, simplistic nature of these women, their comfort with one another, and the very fact that nothing appears to be happening on the surface bely the fact that sub rosa, much is being expressed about their characters and their ethos, their regrets and sorrows. On a wider scale, through character symbolism, Horton Foote has locked into the core of universal human experience, revealing it through these housewives.
With their conversation, Foote prepares us for the entrance of Annie, who brings the drama and madness wherein reside many of the themes of The Roads to Home. With kindness and calmness Mabel is able to deflect Annie’s reveries about the past horror. Despite Vonnie’s shock at Annie’s outbursts, Mabel moves the conversation forward, ignoring Annie’s descent into painful flashback. We understand why she visits Mabel daily: Mabel successfully brings her out of her misery for a time. But it is clear Annie’s unconscious will not be quelled over the long haul. Though she has married and has a stable outer life, her inner life roils with hurts; until she confronts what happened, she will plunge further and further into unreality.
Throughout we are reminded that this is the South. It is the 1920s, and men deemed women “hysterical.” Psychoanalytic therapy was not often practiced, and women could be committed, a threat we hear Annie’s husband, Mr. Long (Dan Bittner is effectively soulless and washed-out of empathy), quietly menace her with. He tells her that unless she makes an attempt to “get it together” and stop leaving home to ride the streetcars and “hang out” at Mabel’s – which Mabel’s husband Jack finds particularly tiresome – he will commit her to the asylum.
In the next scene, six months later, we are again in Mabel’s kitchen, but the tenor between the two women has ripened and eventually we and Mabel discover that Vonnie is emotionally in the throes of hell. Her husband Eddie has found another woman and has asked Vonnie for a divorce. This scene is amazing for Foote’s perspective of women’s angst about their men. Vonnie, who has initially deceived herself about Eddie’s mistress, can no longer lie to herself. In her confession to Mabel, the emotional truth of devastation she has experienced at being thrown over for a woman three years younger is powerful theater.
Tripped up by the greatest gift a friend can bestow, Mabel places herself in Vonnie’s woeful shoes, empathizing and imagining what she would do if Jack did the same to her. She vows that she would stab him in the chest (Hallie Foote’s timing and precise, exaggerated pronunciation throughout this scene are just fabulous). The contrast between the women is brilliant. Vonnie is emotionally tormented by her own victimization; she has been blindsided and the shock is overwhelming. Mabel, since she perceives this in the conditional future and will probably never face such an event, transforms her sweetness into vituperation; she unexpectedly becomes a self-proclaimed, lunatic killer. The scene’s humor is at once sardonic and hysterical. I even heard guffaws of appreciation from men sitting near me.
Foote and Harris are just great in this scene, reaching up to the heavens to relay potent, gritty, moment-to-moment, memorable portrayals. What also punches up their vibrancy are the husbands’ responses. Devon Abner’s Jack is wonderfully lackadaisical. His nonplussed attitude is serene and calm, backdropped by the wives’ emotional crescendos. He drifts between wakefulness and unconsciousness (an interesting metaphor for his relationship with Mabel), mouth open and drowsing in his chair as Vonnie and Mabel rant and rave.
The icing on the cake appears when nonchalantly villainous Eddie appears to add fuel to the emotional fires. At first appearance he is determined, confident, and prideful, nearly demanding a divorce. He leaves, then abruptly returns after a time; he is on the verge of remorse; he is confused, a foundering soul without a shoreline to swim to. With his breakdown, which closes the scene and leaves us uncertain as to what will happen, Foote has pierced the depths of maleness. Without the hearth, comfort, and homely familiarity of the nest, this man is completely bereft. Despite the lure of “adventure” before him, he will be rudderless and alone, the potential pawn of a vixen and stranger.
Act Two, “Spring Dance,” is initially a canard which we desperately wish to believe, thinking there is no relationship between it and the first two scenarios. We see Annie attended by men who ask her to dance; she is dressed in loveliness; the men in black tie look spiffy and well-heeled. Annie appears happy until we are slammed with the truth.
This is the asylum in Austin, Texas where Annie has been committed for four years and most likely will remain for the rest of her life, unvisited by her children and former husband, who divorced her. The themes of loss, loneliness, unreality, lack of communication, and the confused muddle of relationships between husbands and wives are all realized in this act.
Annie is the belle of the ball, solicited by men who have been committed by their wives who have divorced them. We note the irony and symbolism: The actors who played the husbands in the other scenarios (Dan Bittner, Devon Abner, Matt Sullivan) play mentally deranged husbands here. We are reminded of the fragility of emotional wellbeing and the brutality of the marriage relationship, which allows both husbands and wives to get rid of their spouses by having them committed; the justification for divorce is neat and tidy.
We then consider Vonnie and Mabel, Eddie and Jack, and by comparison Annie and Mr. Long. There but for the grace go any of the characters we have met. It is a poignant and dark conclusion whose setting, the dance of the committed, is particularly heartbreaking because we realize that Annie is now more alone than ever.
Though it’s not one of Horton Foote’s best, The Roads to Home is mighty. In the directorial hands of Michael Wilson, who is well acquainted with Foote’s work (he directed the wonderful Orphan’s Home Cycle), the production is subtle, terrifying, and poignant. The cliche “home is where the heart is” is especially off-kilter for these couples, who can find little sustenance in each other or themselves. Each person searching in his or her own way, with the exception of Jack Votaugh who is complacently sleep-walking through his existence.
The production presented by Primary Stages for the Horton Foote Centennial (1916-2016) at The Cherry Lane Theatre concluded its run on 27 November. I do wish that it had received an extended run. It is that good.