DIVA TALK: Chatting With Evita Star Caroline Bowman Plus A Captivating Betty Buckley

By Andrew Gans
13 Sep 2013

Buckley in Old Friends.
photo by Joan Marcus

Betty Buckley in The Old Friends
There are few things more exciting in the theatre than being surprised by one of your favorite artists. Just when I thought I had seen the full range of Tony winner Betty Buckley's extraordinary work, I was enthralled by her dynamic performance in the world premiere of Horton Foote's Texas-set The Old Friends, which recently opened at New York's Signature Theatre.

Buckley plays the rich, desperate, conniving, love-starved, selfish alcoholic Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, and her performance is as rich and layered as any of her award-winning musical theatre outings. In fact, The Old Friends marks Buckley's best non-musical stage performance to date and makes this writer hope this is just the first of many Southern women the Fort Worth native will tackle.

Buckley, who shares the stage with such gifted stage veterans as Lois Smith, Hallie Foote and Veanne Cox — all terrific here — is never less than captivating, and her work as Gertrude is so committed that it's hard to believe how much I disliked a character played by an artist I so admire. That said, it is to Buckley's credit that she is also able to convey her character's vulnerability, the depths of her despair and the fear that propels her often-egregious actions. There may be no excuses for Gertrude's shenanigans — especially her destruction of Sibyl's modest home and belongings — but Buckley manages to make a three-dimensional woman out of a character who could be played as a one-note villain. The second act bedroom scene is a tour de force for Buckley, who lays out her nefarious plans, only to recoil from rejection on all sides.

Foote explores some familiar territory in this humorous, moving, often gripping, sometimes disturbing, but ultimately satisfying drama, including the power of money, the treatment of elderly family members and the elusive nature of happiness. But it is Buckley's powerful performance that lingers, and while one hopes the Olivier nominee will return to the musical theatre — this writer would love to see her take on Fraulein Schneider in the upcoming revival of Cabaret — her work in The Old Friends may propel this quintessential musical theatre star to become one of our great dramatic actresses.

[Subscriptions to Signature Theatre and tickets to individual productions can be purchased by calling the Signature Theatre Box Office at (212) 244-7529 or by visiting signaturetheatre.org.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.