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‘The Traveling Lady’ by Horton Foote, directed by Austin Pendleton

Larry Bull, Lynn Cohen, Geroge Morfogen, Traveling Lady, Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote

(L to R): Larry Bull, Lynn Cohen, George Morfogen in ‘Traveling Lady’ directed by Austin Pendleton at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Carole Rosegg)

The Traveling Lady by American treasure Horton Foote (Pultizer Prize and two-time Academy Award winner), is about the foibles of human nature, relationships, loss and the hope of love and new beginnings as a natural order of living. The production directed by Austin Pendleton with his usual insight, attentiveness to acting specificity and feel for “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em,” is currently being presented by La Femme Theatre Productions at The Cherry Lane Theatre. It boasts a very fine cast.

The Traveling Lady is an ensemble piece that requires on-point performances for the portrayals to cohere and present logically. Foote accomplishes his work steadfastly, brilliantly: every line builds on the other in his characterizations. And though his work appears simplistic, it is layered and profound with minimal belaboring. If one carefully attends to the themes and character notes, one understands that the outcome for his small-town personalities is inevitable. The beauty of Foote’s work and this production is that it is far from predictable. This is why much of Foote’s work, if executed with precision, as Pendleton does with the assistance of the fine ensemble and artistic creative team, is greatly satisfying in its representation of homely Americana.

Lynn Cohen, Karen Ziemba, Angelina Fiordellisi, Traveling Lady, Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre

(L to R): Lynn Cohen, Karen Ziemba, Angelina Fiordellisi in ‘Traveling Lady,’ directed by Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Foote’s plot arc for The Traveling Lady is developed with enough inherent tension so that one actually breathes a sigh of relief at the conclusion, as the characters move naturally toward their resolutions. As with many of his plays (i.e. Orphan’s Home Cycle), Foote lays out the rural dynamic of his setting as 1950, the small Texas town of Harrison.

In Harrison as in any rural town, daily life is routine and slow. The action moves with major town events: births, weddings, funerals. And Foote uses an earth shattering event, the death of Miss Kate, Henry Thomas’ mother, to be the catalyst for the movement of life, death and renewal for Foote’s protagonists.

It is Miss Kate’s funeral which brings Henry Thomas back to Harrison. It is Henry’s return to his hometown which brings his wife Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) and their daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow) to Harrison to be with him. Henry and Georgette are thrust into the matrix of characters who make neighborly visits to share the gossip at Clara Breedlove’s home. It is in revealing Henry’s and Georgette’s impulses and humanity that Foote’s themes of sorrow, regret, hope and forgiveness are relayed.

Karen Ziemba, Lynn Cohen, PJ Sosko, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jill Tanner, Traveling Lady, Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote, Austin Pendleton

(L to R): Karen Ziemba, Lynn Cohen, PJ Sosko, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jill Tanner in ‘The Traveling Lady’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

The neighborly matrix of townsfolk born and bred in Harrison include the elderly, “mentally slipping” Mrs. Mavis (a fabulous Lynn Cohen), Sitter Mavis (Karem Ziemba is her patient, loving daughter), Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen in too brief an appearance), Mrs. Tillman (the humorous Jill Tanner as the stalwart, religious, do-gooder), Henry Thomas (PJ Sosko is perfect as the heart-rending, regretful and angry Henry) and Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi is excellent as the kind, wise, earth-mother) whose home {ironically not far from the cemetery} and heart provide a respite and place of sustenance.

Two protagonists, one who was not raised in Harrison, and the other who was and plans to leave it are Georgette Thomas and Slim Murray. Harrison is a way station for Georgette Thomas who comes seeking husband Henry after he is released from the penitentiary for stabbing and nearly killing a man.

Larry Bull finely shapes his Slim with subdued inner beauty and humility. He breathes charisma, attractiveness and light in Slim’s soul as a quiet hero whose values and principles are decent and kind. I could feel every woman in the audience including myself ache for more such individuals like Slim (who is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Slim in Of Mice and Men). Slim, who has been a deputy, prefers working in the cotton industry and plans to head South to pursue what he knows best.

Jean Lichty, Korinne Tetlow, Angelina Fiordellisi, The Traveling Lady, The Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote, Austin Pendleton

(L to R): Jean Lichty, Korinne Tetlow, Angelina Fiordellisi in ‘The Traveling Lady,’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

As Henry’s loving, long-suffering, sweet, loyal wife Georgette, Jean Lighty is well cast, as is Korinne Tetlow who is exceptionally poised and captivating as her little daughter, Margaret Rose. Georgette and Margaret Rose are wanderers looking for rest and succor. Georgette hopes that her reunion with husband Henry will be successful and they will finally be able to live as a family. From the other characters, we discover that she has been loyal to Henry and would be most probably until “death do them part.” However, his actions are not worthy of her love and his inner weaknesses create the guilt that keeps him racing down the path of self-destruction. Despite this, Georgette may be willing to forgive him and continue if not for the welfare of Margaret Rose. These attributes of patience and loyalty form the core of who Georgette is. She reflects the time she lives in; she echoes the folkways of the Texas communities whose women “stand by their men.”

Foote has laid his groundwork for us to immediately empathize with mother and daughter. We learn they are not accepted because people where they attempt to live discover Henry’s background. Georgette’s father represents such attitudes. After Henry goes to the penitentiary, her father throws her out of the house. He refuses to accept his daughter’s marriage to Henry and ignores her when she sends him a picture of Margaret Rose.

Georgette has hidden Henry’s situation from Margaret Rose. For her daughter’s sake, instead of confronting realities about Henry, in her mind she has built up tremendous hope for a family reunion. She believes that Henry can only improve. Though both are ready for a renewal, it is not to come in the shape and form Georgette imagines.

Lynn Cohen, Jean Lichty, Larry Bull Karen Ziemba, The Traveling Lady, The Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote

(L to R): Lynn Cohen, Jean Lichty, Larry Bull, Karen Ziemba in ‘The Traveling Lady’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

When mother and daughter arrive at Clara Breedlove’s home, eventually Henry, as all the townsfolk most likely do, finds his way there. Clara Breedlove’s home is a fitting symbol; it is not only a hub for the townsfolk and in this case the travelers, it is also a place for the truth to be revealed and accepted without judgment or recrimination. The “Breedlove” last name is appropriately clever.

In her loyalty and principled soul, Georgette is the counterpart of Slim who lost his wife and was/still is devastated by the circumstances surrounding their relationship which he finally reveals to his sister Clara in a poignant scene. Foote has created sterling human beings in Slim and Georgette and indeed they are archetypes for what may be the best potential for contentment in relationships.

We are gratified that somehow throughout all the pain and suffering Georgette and Slim have endured. They are stolid individuals, unbowed by life’s hardships. Perhaps they will end up together to find some measure of happiness in the next chapter of their lives. With Foote, it is always a hopeful “perhaps.” Certainly, if Georgette remains with Henry, who is an alcoholic, disaster will follow for her and Margaret Rose.

The resolution of conflicts in Slim’s, Georgette’s and Henry’s lives occurs at Clara Breedlove’s.  Foote has staged the beginning of life transformation there in Clara’s homely place, perhaps the most appropriate of places for there to be the possibility of life affirmations.

This production is a gem. You will appreciate the strong performances by the ensemble and incisive direction by Austin Pendleton. The cast, the director and the creative team Harry Feiner (Scenic & Lighting Design), Theresa Squire (Costume Design), Ryan Rumery (Sound Design & Original Music) whose striking production values enhance throughout, effect a very fine presentation of Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady.

For performances and ticket information, go to; or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111; or stop by the box office at The Cherry Lane Theatre on 38 Commerce Street. The production has no intermission and runs until 16 July.

‘The Brightness of Heaven’ by Acclaimed Author Laura Pedersen

Paula Ewin, Kendall Rileigh and James Michael Lambert in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' by Laura Pedersen. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Paula Ewin, Kendall Rileigh and James Michael Lambert in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ by Laura Pedersen. Photo by John Quilty.

The brighter heaven shines, the greater the darkness created. If shadows metaphorically apply to guilt, depression and constriction, then surely the Kilgannon and Jablonski families who have experienced the brilliance of  heavenly scriptures and folkways via the culture of the Catholic Church and St. Aloysius school have also been shadowed in darkness. This thematic point-counterpoint prevails throughout character interactions and behaviors in Laura Pedersen’s intriguing and incisive comedic-dramatic play The Brightness of Heaven, exceptionally directed by the always on-point Ludovica Villar-Hauser. The production is currently at The Cherry Lane Theatre.

What can mitigate the glare of burning church doctrine and the traditional cliches that bring little personal happiness yet bond the Kilgannons and Jablonskis in strangleholds of deceit? There is the soft light of love and forgiveness created by the family’s individual colors. However ironic, however subtly truthful, all blend. The rainbow created strikes at the heart of how the Jablonskis and the Kilgannons are able to find their way along life-paths, sometimes bending to compromise, other times forging out alone and in silence. Nevertheless, they do come back to stand with each other, whether in shade or in a pale reflection of the heavenly light that continues to bathe them, in the hope of creating a new understanding about each other and themselves.

Kate Kearney-Patch, Paula Ewin and Mark Banik in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Kate Kearney-Patch, Paula Ewin and Mark Banik in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

The play begins as Ed Kilgannon’s sister Mary Jablonski’s, and Ed’s wife Joyce Kilgannon prepare for the evening’s special occasion bringing all the Jablonskis and Kilgannons together for their “family act.” This will be performed at St. Aloysius school. Pedersen has set the action in Buffalo, NY, 1974. With humor she anchors the backdrop of this family’s strict religious culture, the narrow attitudes, the adherence to the social life of the church and St. Aloysius through the discourse of these velvet matriarchs. There are religious statues in the kitchen, and Pedersen and Villar-Hauser have clarified the importance of Catholicism to these women who have been raised in a Catholic community and who have rigidly brought up their children in the tenets of the Church.

The beauty of Pedersen’s writing and Villar-Hauser’s direction is that Mary (Paula Ewin), and Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch), are thoroughly delightful, folksy and funny seen through the lens of our trending 21st century viewpoints. They are not scary “religious” right, hard-nosed fanatics, though on another level they could be. But this is a subtlety that we are lured away from considering outright. One reason is that Pedersen guides us through the exposition cleverly. The characterizations appear to be human and well rounded. The setting and staging are comfortable, homey and warm. Another reason is that Villar-Hauser’s fine direction and the talented actors Ewin and Kearney-Patch remain amazingly empathetic and likable. We understand that their beliefs are borne out of love and faith, not political didacticism. We are with them back in 1974 as we listen to them gossip with each other and take care of homely chores.

(L to R) Mark Banik and Bill Coyne in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' by Laura Pedersen. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Mark Banik and Bill Coyne in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ by Laura Pedersen. Photo by John Quilty.

The worm turns, however, when the adult children show up for dinner and prepare for the family event. As the children and parents interact, we begin to see the effects of the stultifying, religious upbringing. We hear the dark undercurrents and the verbal swipes of irony and sarcasm in their conversation. We also note other behavioral clues the playwright, actors and director have developed for us. For example Grace (wonderfully played by Emily Batsford), whips her caustic humor like a rapier. She ironically quips about losing friends during softball because her mom shouted at her on the baseline, “Thou shall not steal.” Grace stands with a crooked, caved in posture. It is a clever detail signifying how rigidity not only can have a negative mental influence, but a physical one as well. The scripture which is supposed to “make the crooked straight” has failed; Grace’s self-perceived “weirdness” manifests in her body. Pedersen’s characterization reveals that her conflict of attempting to “live in grace” has ironically had a warping effect on the character. Grace has not yet “found her way of salvation” in life, as she struggles with the religious notion that the afterlife, not the present life, is where one wants to be as a Catholic.

Emily Batsford in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Kendall Rileigh, Emily Batsford in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

For each of the adult children, religion has made an impact bringing light and dark. The conflict between these forces has caused them to live a life of duality. They put on “righteousness” masks with their mothers and with the community so they will not be a “disappointment.” But they flout religious traditions behind their backs. However, living a life of deception in conflict with the truth is hell. The Kilgannon and Jablonski children are suffering. They have learned to lie to Joyce and Mary at a great cost to their own personal happiness and dignity. Whether they are honest or deceptive, someone will get hurt. There is no easy or smooth road ahead.

Peter Cormican and Kate Kearney-Patch in 'Brightness of Heaven,' by Laura Pedersen , directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, at The Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo form the website.

Peter Cormican and Kate Kearney-Patch in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ by Laura Pedersen,  directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, at The Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo from the website.

Pedersen draws the characterizations profoundly. We see that each of the children yearn for acceptance and understanding. They don’t realize that they may have it, for the “religion” they fight against has at its foundation love and forgiveness. The question is, do Mary and Joyce follow the religion after the spirit (grace, love)? Or do they follow it after the law (looking righteous to please the church community)? During the first part of the evening, the children don’t challenge their parents. It takes strength to confront Mary and Joyce. Since they do not muster the courage to reveal their own hypocrisy of living in the shadows, the secrets remain hidden. Pedersen hints at their dualities and the aspects of light and dark in the characters’ interactions.

(L to R) Peter Cormican, James Michael Lambert, Kate Kearney-Patch in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' by Laura Pederson, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Peter Cormican, James Michael Lambert, Kate Kearney-Patch, Paula Ewin in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ by Laura Pedersen, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

Some of the light comes in the form of song interludes where various family members sing out of a love of the family’s togetherness. The cast are magical as they integrate the music seamlessly and skillfully with the play’s dialogue. The light also comes in the form of humorous comments to the matriarchs; even Dad Ed (the talented Peter Cormican), chimes in with jokes to shift focus away from uncomfortable topics. The levity (a specialty of Pedersen), is organic, arising from each character’s individual struggles. It indicates the extent they are trying to resolve hypocrisy or self-deception. The jokes also help them defuse the tenets of Mary’s and Joyce’s interpretations of sin and right behavior. Mary and Joyce are good-natured and well meaning, though religiously inflexible and indirectly condemning. So the benign ridicule is an effective counterpoint to the characters’ underlying guilt, the “gift that keeps on giving.” notes Grace.

The light also manifests when the adult children are out of earshot of their mothers; it is then that they can be honest with one another. For example before Brendan (a fine Bill Coyne), enters the house, he speaks with his brother Dennis (Mark Banik portrays him with rectitude). They argue about how religion impacts them. Dennis (who appears righteous to his mom but is deceiving her), criticizes Brendan for drinking and not living a “proper” life. Brendan tells Dennis, pointing to his head, that “one can make heaven out of hell and hell out of heaven,” a comment Brendan wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to his mom or aunt. Like Grace’s caved in posture and “weirdness,” Brendan’s drinking reflects his inner conflicts, disappointments, deceit and perhaps his inability to completely reconcile his religious beliefs. In each instance, Pedersen reveals that all of the children are learning how to be themselves within a narrow framework as they try to establish a life away from their parent’s traditions. All are struggling to break free so that eventually, they can reveal themselves to those they most desire acceptance from, despite the risk censure that may follow.

(L to R) Mark Banik, Kendall Rileigh and James Michael Lambert in 'The Brightness of Heaven.' Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Mark Banik, Kendall Rileigh and James Michael Lambert in ‘The Brightness of Heaven.’ Photo by John Quilty.

It is not a coincidence that Pedersen has the youngest daughter risk speaking the truth about her life, and has Mary’s son do the same. Both have committed mortal sins in the “eyes” of the church. Kathleen Kilgannon (an excellent performance by Kendall Rileigh), and Jimmy Jablonski (James Michael Lambert in an equally fine portrayal), can no longer pretend to be holy while living in self-deception and misery. The confrontation scene takes place at the dinner table; Pedersen deftly escalates the strains of dark and light, anger and humor until they erupt and boil over from undercurrents that had remained below the surface.

The pleasant dinner turns into an unruly communion. Some of the family get up from the table in avoidance, but there is no turning back and the truth explodes brilliantly as the Kilgannons and the Jablonskis stare heavily at its brightness. Now there is the freedom to speak. The children dredge up their secret sins and throw them on the table for everyone to see. With this roll of the dice, they have taken a chance on being real, hoping to satisfy their own personal integrity and gain peace, though it may mean turning their back on the church. For Mary and Joyce who have made safe wagers all their lives, the dice rolls snake eyes. Now it is their turn to reveal what they are made of and who they are. Should they follow the spirit of grace in love and forgiveness? Or should they strictly follow the church and condemn what their children have done?

Pedersen’s powerful resolution crafted by the actors and the director’s fine tuning is symbolic, believable and real. The actors’ ensemble work and the life they and the director effect moment to moment are always refreshing and organic. This  thought provoking production is too good to miss.

The Brightness of Heaven will be at The Cherry Lane Theatre until December 14th.

The review first appeared on Blogcritics.




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