Horton Foote, now of Horatio Street in New York City and forevermore of Wharton, TX, is living proof you can't take the country out of the boy. Come next month (March 14), the boy will be 90, and the country still clings to him in his work with unabashed, stubborn pride.
That work - "over 50 plays, heading toward 60," he reckons - has, in one sense, rarely ventured out of his own backyard. A fifth-generation descendant of the town and the sole member of the Wharton Hall of Fame(!), he knows where all the bodies are. It gives a guy perspective and the dramatic ammo he has dutifully (if discreetly) detonated for 67 years.
In another sense, try as he will and write as he does, home is an illusion - a fading engima that escapes his grasp and those of his characters. The older you grow, the more it recedes in memory and in fact. "I learned that lesson a long time ago," he admits with a melancholy that's neither heavy nor hopeless. "There's nothing in Wharton now. It was a big cotton center, and Saturdays were important. You couldn't walk down the street for the people who worked the cotton fields coming to town. Now it's deader than a Sunday."
The home that isn't there anymore is the carrot that propels two famous Foote heroines, both of whom are back in town this season: Mrs. Carrie Watts, on The Trip to Bountiful, and Georgette Thomas, a.k.a. The Traveling Lady, are both riding Greyhounds to a fall. The former is a grandmother bolting from a stifling, citified life back to the old homestead for a last look. The latter is a young mother, with tot in tow, seeking a happy end with her jailbird hubby. Lois Smith stars now in Signature Theatre's extended Trip (through Feb. 19), following Lillian Gish on Broadway and TV and an Oscar-winning Geraldine Page on film. "This role," says Foote, "has always been a lesson of humility to me because there's no one way to play it. If an actress has basic talent, she brings something special to the part, and yet it has the same effect."
Next month Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) will play host to the return of The Traveling Lady, basically a transplant of a production Marion Castleberry directed two years ago at The Horton Foote Playwrights Festival at Baylor University.
Kim Stanley was the first Traveling Lady - on Broadway, then on British and eventually American television. Lee Remick did the part, opposite Steve McQueen, in the movie version that was redubbed "Baby, the Rain Must Fall." It was a low-key, close-to-the-ground drama, quite unlike the lushly lurid way it was advertised in France. (As a hoot, a massive two-sheet French poster - "Le Sillage de la Violence!" - dominates the tavern/dining room of Horton Foote Jr.'s Texas-styled eatery off 8th Avenue, Tavern on Jane.)
Foote came to playwriting not at all sure-footedly - through the backdoor, having started out as an actor. He studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and struggled eight years on both coasts without distinction - or worse: When The Theatre Guild did The Fifth Column, a Spanish Civil War drama and Hemingway's one fling at playwriting, Lee Strasberg hired him for a small part supporting Franchot Tone and Lee J. Cobb, but the role was cut on the road. "I never had a great reach as an actor. In those days, it was mostly a scramble for jobs."
Just to stay a player in New York, he co-founded the American Actors Company, which included Jean Stapleton and Mildred Dunnock, in 1938. "Because we were from different parts of the country, we would do improvisations to help each other understand our sections - sort of an exercise," he recalls, "and I was always doing Texas. I never thought of being a writer until our choreographer, Agnes DeMille, said to me one day that I should consider it. I said, 'Well, how do you do that?' She said, 'Write about what you know.' So I did. But I took her literally. In my first play, Wharton Dance, I used real names. Robert Coleman of the Mirror came down to see it, liked it a lot and gave me a good review for my acting, so I sent it home. My parents were pleased and showed it to their friends, who discovered things in the play about their children. I learned a very valuable lesson there."
It has been a life lesson. Right now he has three finished plays that won't see the light of stage until the people they are based on have sufficiently bit the dust. "I just wouldn't want to embarrass anybody," he says. The Day Emily Married, which starred Estelle Parsons last season, was written years ago and stored for this reason.
So, what will The Great Man do to mark No. 90?
"Hide," Foote throws out for a quick laugh. Getting it, he reels it back: "Working, I hope. There's this film I'm doing with [producer] Thom Mount. It's called - I'm not crazy about the title - 'Main Street, U.S.A.'"
The setting is Durham, North Carolina, "because Thom asked me to come down and visit with him and talk about doing a film, and I fell in love with the town. To look at those abandoned tobacco warehouses - it's heartbreaking. I had my story right away."
Don't look now, but the 90-year-old boy seems to have left home….