‘The Old Friends’ finds Horton Foote in ‘Dallas’ mode

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Horton Foote, the Texas-born playwright who died in 2009, at the age of 92, was often called “the Chekhov of the American South.”

Renowned for such plays as “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Dividing the Estate,” “The Young Man from Atlanta,” and “The Orphans’ Cycle,” and for the screenplays for such classics as “To Kill a Mockingbird ” and “Tender Mercies,” Foote was a master at capturing the way a society steeped in tradition either adapted or failed to adapt to social change. And with tragicomic sleight-of-hand he exposed the destructive nature of greed, and the profound loneliness that came with the pursuit of money and the breakdown of family ties.

“The Old Friends,” now at Raven Theatre, was in the works from the mid-1960s on, but was never produced in the playwright’s lifetime. There might well be a reason for that. The play is a wildly uneven mix of melodrama and farce —part modern Texas incarnation of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” and part small town version of “Dallas” (the TV series that only arrived in 1978). It has its moments, but it lacks the subtle power of Foote’s best work. And despite some deft portrayals by the large Raven Theatre cast, under the direction of Michael Menendian, it never quite finds its way into the heart.

Andy Monson (from left), JoAnn Montemurro and Judy Lea Steele in Horton Foote’s “The Old Freinds,” at Raven Theatre. (Photo: Dan La Prairie)

Andy Monson (from left), JoAnn Montemurro and Judy Lea Steele in Horton Foote’s “The Old Freinds,” at Raven Theatre. (Photo: Dan La Prairie)

‘THE OLD FRIENDS’

Somewhat recommended

When: Through March 26

Where: Raven Theatre,6157 N. Clark

Tickets: $18 – $42

Info: (773) 338-2177;  www.RavenTheatre.com

Run time: 2 hoursand 15 minutes. with one intermission

Set in Harrison, Texas, the fictional town with agricultural roots that was Foote’s imaginary base, “The Old Friends” homes in on a wealthy, unhappy, childless couple in late middle age —Albert Price (Ron Quade), and his shrill, man-baiting wife, Julia (Judy Lea Steele) —who live in a comfortable ranch house where they drink far too much, and where the tension is palpable. Living with them, and always feeling unwelcome, is Julia’s gray-haired mother, Mamie Borden (Marssie Mencotti).

Continually stirring things up is Gertrude Ratliff, a lifelong “friend” of the Prices. A hugely wealthy woman and a tempestuous alcoholic, she is newly widowed, and desperate to grab hold of her late husband’s younger brother, Howard (Will Casey), who also is the target of the sex-starved Julia. Howard manages Gertrude’s property, and is a truly decent man who has only found himself rather late in life. And neither Julia nor Gertrude hold any interest for him, especially with the return to town of the sad, long-suffering, bookish Sybil Borden (Lori Myers). Also freshly widowed, Sybil has spent the past 30 years married to Julia’s brother, following him to Mexico and Venezuela where he pursued oil interests but ended up penniless.

Lori Myers and Will Casey in the Raven Theatre production of Horton Foote’s ‘The Old Friends.” (Photo: Dan La Prairie)

Lori Myers and Will Casey in the Raven Theatre production of Horton Foote’s ‘The Old Friends.” (Photo: Dan La Prairie)

Howard seems to have been Sybil’s first choice decades earlier, but something went wrong. Now, he is in pursuit and she is wary. Meanwhile, the arrival of Tom Underwood, (Andy Monson), the son of a local family —a string bean of a fellow with greaser moves and a streak of pure opportunism – proves a laughable distraction as this boy toy is hotly competed for by both Julia and Gertrude.

Along the way, designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s clever revolving set goes through three transformations, with the scene changes great fun to watch.

The quieter performances of Casey, Myers and Quade are meant to balance out the shrill, over-the-top antics of the manipulative Gertrude and the lascivious Julia, with Mencotti suggesting her own sly ways and Monson supplying comic relief. Two African-American housekeepers (Aneisa Hicks and Kayla Pulley) signal their quite different attitudes towards their bosses with few words. But in the final analysis, the self-devouring crudeness Foote conjures here never approaches the depths Hellman was able to suggest. And the tumult wears thin.

NOTE: There is good news for all those who may have missed Menendian’s previous stunner of a production at Raven, “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys.” The show, featuring its original cast, is to be remounted this summer, running July 21 – Aug. 21. It is not to be missed.

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