No one wrote more affectionately or accurately about the plain folk of Middle American than Horton Foote. In plays and movies like Tender Mercies, The Trip To Bountiful, and To Kill A Mockingbird, Foote returned home to those small towns where everybody knows your name—and your business … and your life is all the richer for it.

It’s in a Texas town called Harrison, not too far from the Gulf Of Mexico and very much like Foote’s own hometown of Wharton, that the Pulitzer Prize Winner sets 1954’s The Traveling Lady, now getting its second revival at Actors Co-op, twenty-one years after a 1990 production put Hollywood’s Christian-based professional theater on the L.A. theatrical map. Featuring two players from that earlier production and a cast almost entirely made up of company members (only the child Michaela Rose Haas is a guest artist), The Traveling Lady circa 2011 is an absolutely perfect gem of a production, one that ought to please traditional audience members and their progressive counterparts in equal measure.

The titular traveler is Georgette Thomas (Tara Battani), who arrives in Harrison one early spring day in 1950 with her six-year-old daughter Margaret Rose (Haas) in anticipation of the arrival of her husband Henry (J. Scott Shonka), a Harrison native who has spent the past six years in the state penitentiary. The Texas town Georgette discovers is peopled by quaint and quirky folk like the elderly Mrs. Mavis (Brenda Ballard), grown forgetful and cantankerous in her old age to the consternation of her spinster daughter Sitter (Rebecca Hayes). Foote also introduces us to no-nonsense Clara Breedlove (Susan Carol Davis), do-gooder Mrs. Tillman (Lori Berg), and folksy Judge Robedaux (Tim Farmer). Completing the townsfolk is widower Slim (David Atkinson), recovering from an unhappy marriage and his wife’s death, who takes an instant liking to Georgette and Margaret Rose—but mostly to Georgette.

Though the Harrison newcomer believes that her husband has only just been released from prison, Henry has in fact been back in town this past month working for Mrs. Tillman, who is confident that she and the Lord have saved him from his addiction to alcohol and any criminal urges it may have caused. We learn early on that Henry the child was frequently “whipped” by the woman who raised him, in an attempt to “break his spirit,” and as we soon discover, Mrs. Tillman may be more than a bit naïve in her belief that a wounded bird like Henry can ever truly recover from what we now call child abuse.

Taking place over a mere twenty-four hours, The Traveling Lady makes for an entertaining blend of laughter and tears, and despite being a play in which not all the much “happens,” Foote’s homespun drama is likely to keep you on the edge of your seat, so deeply does it involve its audience in the lives of Georgette and the folk she meets in Harrison.

Directed with consummate grace by Actors Co-op member Linda Kerns, The Traveling Lady is impeccably performed by a cast of actors whose years as company colleagues and offstage friends makes their onstage relationships all the more believable.

Battani and Davis, whom Co-op regulars will recall as affluent Philadelphia mainliners in last season’s The Philadelphia Story, are equally credible as folksy Texans, and no wonder. Both are natives of the Lone Star State, their participation in The Traveling Lady doubtless aiding their “Yankee” costars in mastering what, to this reviewer’s untrained ears at least, sound like authentic Texas accents, and not the generic “Southern drawl” that less professional actors might have come up with. In a performance inspired by Kim Stanley’s 1954 original, Battani radiates warmth and wholesome charm, winning hearts from her first appearance and allowing us to see that the confident smile Georgette shows the world is a mask she uses to hide tears not far beneath the surface. Davis is terrific too as a woman with a far more realistic take on life than those who willingly accept Henry’s conversion at face value.

Georgia native Atkinson once again scores on the Co-op stage, creating a Slim so pure of heart and soul that we believe it when he talks about love at first sight. Co-op newcomer Shonka is gut-wrenching as someone whose inner demons have destroyed whatever man he might have become had there not been those childhood scars. The extraordinary Ballard and the delightful Hayes are reunited in the roles they created in 1990 as ditzy mother and loving but long-suffering daughter. Farmer shines as the wise and weathered Judge Robedaux as does Lori Berg, marvelous as always as the overly trusting Mrs. Tillman. Haas charms as Margaret Rose without a trace of affectation. Scott Wordham completes the cast in the non-speaking role of the Sheriff.

Scenic designer Mark Svastics’s Texas porch and yard is so authentic and inviting, it may make you want to get up on stage and “set a spell,” and it is beautifully lit by James L. Moody. Vicki Conrad’s circa 1950 costumes have the look of the real thing as do Berg’s props. Stage manager James Ledesma’s sound design features some very authentic-sounding effects. The Traveling Lady is produced for Actors Co-op by Rory Patterson from a script revised by Foote and Marion Castleberry for its 2006 New York revival.

The Traveling Lady is the kind of play so-called sophisticates like to turn their noses up at sight unseen. I consider myself a fairly sophisticated theatergoer, and I loved every minute of it. Though Foote’s slice of life doesn’t make me want to pack up and call small-town Texas home, I was delighted to spend an hour and a half there with friends—the ones on stage I mean.

Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
May 22, 2011
Photos: Greg Bell

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