Alley Theatre's 2014-2015 season at the University of Houston got underway last night. Texas playwright Horton Foote's "The Old Friends" opens the season with a biting drama that examines loyalty and legacy.
Pulitzer Prize winner Foote uses both a dramatic, cyclical flair and offbeat humor in this play. Director Michael Wilson brought out the best in each actor as they laughed, cried and yelled their way into the audience’s hearts. Set design by Jeff Cowie had just the right country feel to make you feel at home in each rugged house setting. Overall production and cast assembled a brilliant opening production.
(Spoiler Alert: Discussion of plot below)
"The Old Friends" takes place in Harrison, Texas, near Houston in the 1960s. It tells the story of two longtime farming families both filled with colorful, eccentric members. The play opens in the Borden-Price living room as they await the arrival of Mamie Borden's (Annalee Jefferies) son Hugo and wife Sibyl (Hallie Foote). This opening scene really sets up the character dynamics as we see husband, Albert (Jeffrey Bean) and wife, Julia Price (Veanne Cox), who are both rather cold and distant. Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff (Betty Buckley) is a loud, often drunk rich woman who flaunts her lifestyle in the faces of those around her including her late husband's brother, Howard Ratliff (Cotter Smith), whom she has always loved.
Both women are itching to go to a party next door and grow tired of waiting for Hugo's arrival. When Sibyl arrives with the news that Hugo has died shortly after landing, the play begins to take shape. Lines are drawn between the catty, often drink women and the men who surround them. The men seem mere pawns to the whims of each woman whether it be for good or bad intentions.
The playwright’s daughter Foote does a marvelous job of being the shy, quiet and humble widow Sibyl. Audiences can't help but feel sympathetic to her with her character being the most endearing of the women. Jefferies portrayal of Mamie is tender and compliments Foote’s performance perfectly. Jefferies is the grandma we would all like to have loving, kind and all too often taken for granted.
Cox as Janice, the "whore" as she is referred is a firecracker as the cougar that sets her sights on younger, Tom Underwood (Jay Sullivan). Cox plays the character with ease and has a sly demeanor audiences will love to hate her. Buckley truly steals the show as the needy, drunk, rich, selfish Gertrude. Although you might hate her actions and despise her ways, one can't draw their attention away from her captivating performance. She tells it like it is in her drunken rages then quickly retreats into the only wanting love sober rich widow.
The men of the production get in their fair share of chaos and scene stealing. Bean seems to be a simple, mild tempered old man yet he comes alive in the second act. Bean is both ruthless and rage driven as he goes from a quiet husband to a man on the brink. Tom (Sullivan) the younger attractive man, just thrown in for the chaos he will create, does an excellent job shaking things up. Sullivan’s Tom charms the audience with his light nature and free spirit. Smith truly tugs at the heartstrings as Howard. Smith is a heartwarming, lovable character that anyone would love to have by their side. Smith goes from a seeming lapdog character to finally getting the life he deserves.
This play speaks to the ideas of family, loyalty and history. What in the end is most important having money or having love? Each character seems to come to the only way of life they can understand. Some end up with their money, others a dream of staying young, others just being young and others with the understanding that what they have might be just what they need. This play doesn't have a fairy take ending but it seems to look at the realities of living a real life, making real choices and mistakes and then attempting to start over when you think you have nothing left. Each actor offers a moving, genuine performance that truly resonates with the audience and will ultimately be what makes them want to see it repeatedly.
"The Old Friends" runs through September 7 at the Wortham Theatre at UH. For tickets visit their site at alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. Be sure to browse their site for addition information about upcoming shows and details about the first major renovations in the Theatre's history.