On the surface, at least, the two one-act plays that make up Foote Notes: Two Plays About Harrison, Texas by Horton Foote, opening this week at the Open Fist Theatre Company in Hollywood, don’t seem very much alike.
A Young Lady of Property was written in 1953. The original production starred Kim Stanley and Joanne Woodward. It has been revived frequently here in Los Angeles over the years. The Land of the Astronauts was written in the late 1980s, more than 30 years later. According to the playwright’s daughter Hallie Foote, it has never been performed in Los Angeles.
Horton Foote died in March of 2009 at the age of 92, after a writing career that spanned 70 years. Born in the small town of Wharton on the Gulf Coast of Texas 40 miles southwest of Houston in 1916, he left behind an enormous legacy, winning two Academy Awards for screenwriting (best original screenplay in 1983 for Tender Mercies, starring Robert Duvall and best adapted screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962). He was again nominated for an Academy Award in 1985 for his original screenplay The Trip to Bountiful, in which Geraldine Page starred and won the Academy Award for best actress. In 1995 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man From Atlanta, and in 2000 President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts.
Before all the success, however, Horton began, like many successful writers, as an actor writing parts for himself. The plays he wrote were one-acts. Throughout the late 1930s, Horton lived in New York City, studying acting and struggling to find his way onto the Broadway stage. Horton appeared briefly with my father-in-law, Wendell K. Phillips, in an out-of-town production of a Broadway-bound show, but he saw his part axed before the production landed in New York. He wrote a one-act play in 1940 called Wharton Dance, for the American Actors Company, which was warmly praised for the authenticity of its voice and its small-town cast of characters.
Horton’s acting was less kindly received. Â He continued to pen one-act plays, and that led him to live television in the early 1950s. The popular hour-long live broadcasts were ideal for one-act plays, and several of Horton’s scripts for television were later expanded into feature films — The Chase, The Trip to Bountiful, and The Traveling Lady (Traveling Lady became Baby the Rain Must Fall starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick). The first play in Foote Notes, A Young Lady of Property, debuted live on Philco Television Playhouse in April of 1953 and is dedicated to Kim Stanley.
As television commercialized in the late 1950s, interest in live theater broadcasts waned, and Horton moved on to his successful screenwriting career. He returned to writing one-acts in the 1980s. The Land of the Astronauts was written in 1988. During those years Horton spent more and more time in small theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
He taught acting at the HB Studios in New York and was a frequent visitor and contributor to the acting classes of Peggy Feury at the Loft Studio on La Brea Avenue here in Los Angeles. The Man Who Climbed the Pecan Trees was the first one-act play Horton had written in almost 30 years, and it premiered in the tiny Loft Studio Theater in 1982. In New York the Ensemble Studio Theatre began producing an annual short play festival. Horton became a regular contributor, and it was during EST’s Marathon of One-Act Plays in 1988 that The Land of the Astronauts premiered in EST’s intimate New York space.
After a nearly three-decade hiatus, Horton continued to produce, and often direct, his one-act plays for the remainder of his life. In 2009 The Orphan’s Home Cycle, Horton’s collection of nine one-act plays about the life of his father during the early days of the 20th century, was produced to universal acclaim at the Signature Theatre in New York. The critic for the Wall Street Journal wrote of the production, “Foote, who died last March left behind a masterpiece, one that will rank high among the signal achievements of the American theater in the 20th century.” And this fall, in a sold-out run that just recently closed, Primary Stages produced three of Horton’s one-acts under the title Harrison, TX, directed by Tony-nominated director Pam MacKinnon.
It’s a great time to be producing Horton Foote’s one-act plays. The two plays in Foote Notes represent the two most productive periods of Horton Foote’s theater career — the early 1950s and the 1980s. Like virtually everything he wrote, both plays are set in Harrison, Texas (standing in for his real home town of Wharton), and both take place on a warm day, late in spring. Both play out in the hours between late afternoon and the evening. Both plays are focused on headstrong young women who find themselves in a serious jam.
Both of these young women are, in effect, orphans. Wilma Thompson, in Young Lady, is 15 and lives with her aunt Gert, cared for by a black housekeeper named Minna Boyd. Her mother has died, and her father has abandoned her. Lorena Massey in The Land of the Astronauts is literally an orphan, her mother felled by disease. Her father, a broken spirit, died squatting on land taken from him by the bank.
The events in both plays are familial, domestic, and inconsequential in the great scheme of things. At no point will a S.W.A.T Team burst through the door, guns blazing. But strong people will be severely tested in ways that anyone who has seen adversity will easily recognize and connect to. And both plays are fringed with humor and sprinkled with the eccentric characters Horton borrowed from his own childhood in Wharton.
A Young Lady of Property includes a uniquely personal angle. Wilma, the 15-year-old, is contemplating leaving Harrison behind and heading out to Los Angeles. In 1931, at the age of 16, Horton Foote did exactly that. He left his home in Wharton and came to the Pasadena Playhouse, where he studied acting for two years. From there, he passed through Wharton briefly on his way to New York. Although he returned again and again to his childhood home, Horton never again lived full time in Wharton, Texas.
Tellingly, Wilma, in Young Lady, says, “Maybe [I’m] going to Hollywood out of pure lonesomeness”. It’s a theme Horton returned to over and over again: lonely people, orphans, moving through life trying to connect. In a 1999 interview, Horton was asked about his play The Roads to Home. Horton laughed and said, “That could have been the title to any play I ever wrote.”
In The Land of the Astronauts Lorena Massey has lost her husband. The play finds her scrambling to find him and bring him home. Their daughter has a dance recital coming up, and Lorena is determined that her husband will be there. The play is, essentially, a reworking of another play about a woman looking for her man, from the early 1950s, The Traveling Lady. The newer play, like much of Horton’s later work, is more tinged with melancholy. Less certain of its victories. In both plays secondary characters contribute in small ways along the journeys of these young women — a helping hand, a word of reassurance. These moments are more important than they seem. In the end what unites these plays, and all of Horton’s work, is his belief in the redemptive power of small kindnesses, the “tender mercies” that make life not only bearable, but very much worth living.
Foote Notes, presented by Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat. 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through December 15. Tickets: $25.00. www.openfist.org.
***All Foote Notes production photos by Ehrin Marlow
Scott Paulin, director of Foote Notes, began his career as a stage actor in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s appearing at Berkeley Repertory Theater, Magic Theater, Berkeley Stage, and Eureka Theater, where his performance as Pavlo in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel received the Bay Area Critics Circle Award for outstanding performance. Since coming to Los Angeles in 1980, he has worked as an actor and director in film, television and theater. He has directed more than 30 hours of dramatic television and guest starred in more than a hundred episodes of television. His feature film credits include Cat People, Soldiers Story, Turner and Hooch, Pump Up the Volume, and The Right Stuff. He recently directed Nicholas Kazan’s new play, Mademoiselle God at Ensemble Studio Theatre, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class and Horton Foote’s Getting Frankie Married and Afterwards at Open Fist, where he is a proud member. The web series he recently directed, The Mop and Lucky Files, is currently garnering awards at festivals nation wide. He plays Jim Beckett on the hit ABC nighttime drama Castle. He is a longtime friend of the Foote family.