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`Roads to Home' Paved With Irony

Horton Foote's play is a sensitive, often tragic, portrayal of displaced lives

ROADS TO HOME Written and directed by Horton Foote. Produced by Lamb's Theatre Company in association with Lee Caplin and Mortimer Caplin. Producing artistic director, Carolyn Rossi Copeland. Scenic design by Peter Harrison, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, costume design by Gweneth West and D. Polly Kendrick. At Lamb's Little Theatre through Nov. 8.

HORTON FOOTE in "Roads to Home," demonstrates once more that nothing ever breaks quite like the heart - however quietly.

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In the play, which is a trilogy of related one-act plays - "The Nightingale," "The Dearest of Friends," and "Spring Dance," Mr. Foote casts a compassionate but still detached eye on a group of characters who find it impossible to survive in the world.

Generally, the playwright is for survivors. He explains, "I guess I feel that in spite of the chaos around us, there is a lot to celebrate about humanity. At the same time, I have a lot of compassion for those who don't survive in life. My heart has been broken many times by people I loved who couldn't find a way."

The irony that permeates "Roads to Home" begins with its title. There are no roads to home for these characters. In Foote's world, home is a state of existence as much as a place; it is a belonging and attachment that gives identity. These people have lost their moorings and the attachments that give them identity.

The trilogy centers on three Chekhovian "sisters" caught in inner turmoil and quiet desperation. Instead of being in the provinces yearning for the city, they are in the city of Houston yearning for the provinces - an idyllic Harrison, their past world.

The three plays are artistically crafted, each building upon the other in rendering character and recurrent themes, which achieve pathos and poignancy and touch upon the tragic.

In many ways, Mabel Votaugh, played by Jean Stapleton, is the most tragic of the three because she is totally preoccupied with the past, eager for "news" of people from Harrison, regardless of how quick old resentments flair. Her present life is resigned to a marriage with no communication and an empty future.

With her celebrated comedic skills, Ms. Stapleton brings out the humor in Mabel, but she allows the tension between longing and resignation to determine Mabel's character - pathetic with touches of the tragic.

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There is poignancy in Rochelle Oliver's Vonnie Hayhurst as she moves from dignity and assurance to controlled hysteria when the certainties of her life are brought into question. On a day's excursion to Harrison, her husband Eddie meets a woman with whom he begins an affair, and he asks Vonnie for a divorce. So, the road to Harrison becomes the road to the dissolution of her marriage, an institution of stability for Vonnie.

Ms. Oliver's voice, for all its femininity, is a formidable instrument she uses in conveying the progression of Vonnie's reactions from poise to dismay, doubt, and hysteria. Oliver "sounds" the dissolution of Vonnie's life as her voice wavers in the last plaintive declaration: "God usually answers my prayers. So I am going to keep on praying, and I know he won't let me down this time."

Annie Gayle Long (Hallie Foote) is a central character who appears in the first and last plays. In need, she says, of "tenderness and mercy," her displacement is not just from Harrison but from herself. Annie has experienced the extreme dislocation - the loss of her mental faculties. Her ensuing madness is no meritricious nod to Southern Gothicism. Its symptoms are part of Horton Foote's artistry, his sure craftmanship.

Annie's "flights of thought," compulsive, obsessive talk, and the singing of lyrics from "My Kentucky Home" provide dramatic exposition, reveal character, and underline irony. Annie may sing of "sun shining bright," but there is total darkness within her. Annie is turned out to "call" with hat-before-five, gloves, and bag. But underneath her elegant chapeau is a mind in disarray. In the exquisite last play, "Spring Dance," in a flowing orchid chiffon gown with a handkerchief skirt and ribbons in her hair , Annie is as fragile as the gown she wears, her hold on time gone, and her only dance step a poignant sway to a waltz tune.

Throughout, Hallie Foote's Annie carries herself with the rigid posture of royalty as she comes apart before the audience's eyes. Foote is stunningly beautiful and heartbreakingly vulnerable as she renders the symptoms of madness with delicacy and assurance. The part of Annie Gayle Long is brilliantly conceived and delineated as well as sensitively directed and acted.

Ms. Foote is following ably in the rather large footsteps of Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page as the leading interpreter of her father's female roles.

The actresses have fine support from their male counterparts. Michael Hadge exudes frustration as Mr. Long, Annie's husband. Emmet O'Sullivan-Moore brings Jack Votaugh to life - somnolent but knowing, without words for a crossword puzzle but quick to supply a name that is a puzzle - all of it punctuated with grunts and groans.

William Alderson's Eddie Hayhurst is both innocent and impassioned as he sounds a theme and one of the few loud outcries amid the frustrated reserve of the others: "I'm very confused. I've tried to live right all my life, to be good and do the right thing." His confusion is a leitmotif that runs through the play.

Annie's gentlemen companions in "Spring Dance" mirror her disorientation as well as her good manners. Frank Girdeau's Cecil Henry and Dan Mason's Greene Hamilton are touching in their attempts at retaining their gallantry and courtesy despite the loss of a sense of time and self. Dave Dushon (Devon Abner) is caught and arrested in time like a statue as he sits and stares on a bench on stage during the entire play.

Music of the 1920s becomes one of the textures of the play, grounding it in time. But Annie has no sense of time. "I don't remember how long you've been here or I've been here. I forget so much." So do her companions. Greene Hamilton cannot even tell her the length of the play; but at the end, he inquires, memory gone but manners intact, "Will you be staying for a while?" Annie answers, "I suppose I will - for a while." Forever.

And once more, Horton Foote, the master of eloquent understatement, has tugged the heart to the point of breaking - quietly but surely.

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