ARTS

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February 8, 2008

Foote production struggles to hit its stride

Horton Foote, one of America’s most prolific playwrights, has spent seven decades dramatizing the Depression-era American South. In January, the Goodman Theatre began a four-month tribute to Foote, the Academy Award–winning script writer of To Kill a Mockingbird, featuring the upcoming one-acts Blind Date and The Actor, the full-length The Trip to Bountiful, as well as the currently playing Talking Pictures.

Foote’s works encompass a period of American history that allows him to fill his plays with a good deal of sentiment, which is great for the average theatergoer. If you feel that the function of theater is to simply provide familiar entertainment and memories of times gone by, then Talking Pictures is certainly the play to see. The audience clearly loved the old-fashioned humor, the extreme and often-quirky characters, and the nostalgia for the period. However, if you are a patron of the theater who looks for something a little more challenging or probing, then Talking Pictures would probably bore you with its devout commitment to convention.

Talking Pictures is about the Jacksons, a family of four living in Texas during the Great Depression, and Myra, who rents one of their rooms and plays the piano at a silent–motion-picture house. The plot is multi-faceted and full of vignettes dealing with the lives of the people who come in and out of the house. Some of the more prominent plot points involve the Jacksons’ daughter Katie Bell and her fascination with silent movies, the relationship that the bricklayer Willis strikes up with Myra, and Myra’s battle with her ex-husband over the custody of their young son Pete. The vignettes allow for a pretty fair mixture of dramatic elements: love, humor, and familial drama, as well as childhood fantasy and fascination.

Most of my qualms did not involve the production itself but rather the weaknesses of Foote’s play. The script comes across as corny and saccharine. To say that the production was unimpressive, though, would be unfair; that the production manages to overcome some of the play’s flaws is rather remarkable. From a technical standpoint the production is top-notch. The lighting feels very natural while maintaining an undercurrent of theatricality. Talking Pictures also has detailed and specific sound design that occasionally borders on overbearing, but should be appreciated for its realism.

It also needs to be said that not all of the performances fall into the category of cardboard cutouts and caricatures. Jenny McKnight, who portrays the Jacksons’ tenant Myra, gives a very rich performance. McKnight’s performance is never forced and she plays Myra with an air of grace and poise that never seems to disappear even in her most serious and upsetting scenes. This attention to character consistency is what makes the audience care so much about Myra and her story, and McKnight’s performance is definitely the production’s greatest strength. Also giving a very well rounded performance is Judy Blue as Mrs. Jackson, the family’s matriarch and a devout Methodist. While a character with this much religious fervor could easily fall into the area of the extreme and the oversimplified, Blue gives her a real humanity and makes her faith seem completely genuine.

The production’s flaws are found mainly in its structure and in a few of the performances. Horton Foote’s play truly languishes in the second act, which meanders a great deal to tie up the play’s numerous storylines and leaves the audience with barely any time to catch its breath. I also was simply not invested enough in these stories to watch an act solely concerned with their respective resolutions. This production, unfortunately, is unable to do anything to resolve this problematic structure. Additionally, a number of the performances, including Audrey Francis’s Gladys and Dan Waller’s Gerard, were both written and performed thinly, embodying a sophomoric type of humor that clearly fishes for laughs.

The play generally features likable characters and the story should certainly be satisfying to most audiences, but it might very well underwhelm the more analytic and seasoned theatergoer. Only at the very end of Talking Pictures is there moment that seems to rise above the problematic play. As the lights dim, the character of Katie Bell Jackson, played by Lee Stark, sings a Spanish rendition of “Rock of Ages” to impress Estaquio, the son of a Mexican Baptist preacher. Singing softly and without bravado, she seemed to acknowledge the varied tones of the play very simply and elegantly. If every moment of Talking Pictures had felt this authentic, it would be easier to reconcile Horton Foote’s Academy Award– and Pulitzer Prize–laden legacy with the work at hand.