Discovering a new Horton Foote play is downright exciting. “The Old Friends” began and continued life in various forms since 1942 and received an exploratory staging in 1982 at HB Playwrights Foundation. In 2002 Signature Theatre produced a reading with Hallie Foote and Betty Buckley that inspired Foote to create the present version of the play now on the boards at the Pershing Square Signature Center in NY City. He died in 2009 at the age of 93, but his gifts live on in the touching productions directed by dear friend, Michael Wilson, and his daughter, Hallie Foote, who is a featured actress in many of them.
Horton Foote's themes of power, possession and inheritance are very much in evidence here. “The OldFriends” with a lively cast of nine takes place in his hometown of Harrison, Texas. Mamie Borden, played by the amazing Lois Smith, is the mother of flirtatious Julia Price, pencil-thin Veanne Cox, and greedy, needy Gertrude Ratliff, portrayed by the indefatigable Betty Buckley. Mamie has been living in Julia and her drunken husband Albert's house; her existence has been, as she says, miserable. Albert, the rotund Adam Le Fevre, is tortured by his wife's behavior. When Sybil's husband, Hugo, dies suddenly, Mamie asks to move in with her—a daughter- in-law,and happily does. Hallie Foote is contained and restrained as the newly-widowed Sybil, who has had an unhappy life; she carefully watches and listens to everything, while making plans, as if she were walking a tight rope.
This group is a messy one; they know too much about each other, their lives, entwined with memories of youth, are soaked in vodka. Gert is a wealthy widow, who demands that handsome Howard, her husband's brother, marry her. He will have none of it. As Harold, Cotter Smith gives that subtle kind of performance which intrigues. He's been successfully managing Gert's estate, a series of farms. Sybil's return brings a sense of reality to his life. The two were in love once and he wants to start afresh on his own terms with her.
During the second act, Gert, in a beautiful bed designed by Jeff Cowie, ill- probably from drinking too much, offers to buy Sybil's jewelry only if she will get out of town. Sybil refuses and Harold is fired, replaced by a young know-nothing Tom (Sean Lyons), son of a friend of the family.
Michael Wilson directs with a deft touch that keeps the characters skittering around like cats on a hot tin roof. His team of Costumes/ David Woolard, Lighting/ Rui Rita, and Original Music and Sound/ John Gromada, are always first rate. It is no wonder that “The Old Friends” has been extended once again through October 13.