Life in Harrison, Texas moves at a snail’s pace in 1929. No one is aware of events unfolding on the world stage, with life-changing political upheavals in Europe and a world economic collapse just around the corner. Seems the main things occupying the minds of the people of Harrison is an influx of Mexicans and Baptists, the end of silent movies, impending doom of bus travel over train travel, and some guy singing My Mammy in a new “talkie” with his face painted black. “Why’d he do that?”
Horton Foote, late of Wharton, the actual Harrison, Texas, wrote about small town Texas drivel, the kind of things most of us are concerned with in our small lives. Talking Pictures fills the stage with problems that beset us all the while global events are just part of the noise we listen to. What happens to my job if busses replace trains? What will I do when I can’t play the piano at the movie house? How do you read the Bible in Spanish and, really, was Jesus a Baptist or a Methodist?
Irving Community Theatre opened Horton Foote’s Talking Pictures at the Dupree Theatre in Irving Arts Center. This Foote classic, directed by Amber Devlin, is the story of Myra Tolliver, a young single mother who plays piano at the Harrison movie house and rents a room with the Jackson family. Her son, Pete, is faced with challenges by his father, while Myra is faced with the threat that the movie house will install a sound system soon to replace her.
Devlin’s creative team created an interesting stage picture with a framed-in Jackson house lacking any walls. The effect by Clare Floyd Devries was that we could easily distinguish a front yard outside the house while still seeing everyone inside the house in separate rooms. A living room and front bedroom were clearly visible, but we could also see down a hallway into a back room. This 3-dimensional effect provided a seamless scene change between outside and inside and between rooms, as the scene was constantly shifting between them all. Sam Nance lit the house and surrounding stage area to brighten or dim areas of this house to focus attention on various scenes. Jo Anne Hull filled this house with many props from the late 1920’s and provided evidence that this was a modest, yet comfortable lived-in house.
A large projection screen hung on the back wall over the house, showing silent movies on entry and town backgrounds during the scenes. This was understated, with hints of a music found by Jeff Mizener that gave us a concert of 1920’s music on entry, as we watched the 1925 silent movie, Ben-Hur.
Costumes by Michael A. Robinson were easily believable as 1920s, with simple shin-length floral print dresses and dark or tan slacks and shirts for the men. A gangster type character wore a zoot-suit, but otherwise all costumes were nicely understated.
It became obvious early in the story that this was going to be a love story about Myra Tolliver and her suitor, Willis. Tracie Foster played Myra, the piano teacher and player at the local movie house. She has a past to overcome, as a divorcee in a time when single mothers were somewhat ostracized. Myra has a single focus, to support her young teen son, and the closing of the silent movies is a dangerous challenge. As a renter in the Jackson house, she is also beholden to them – her future is affected by their challenges as well. Foster created this character with an ambivalence and concern we imagine for a young mother in that situation. But she also seemed to make Myra a positive and optimistic soul, one who doesn’t blame others for her worries. She was easy to like.
Willis was played by Cory Germany with a kind of aw-shucks view of the world, not dumb, just not intellectual. But Willis has fallen for Myra and he wants to overcome his own personal story, a wife who deserted him but wants to get in his way. Germany was low key, tentative, polite, a perfect gentleman. But when his wife showed up to claim Willis back, German became more forceful and assertive. Willis tries to bond with Myra’s son, Pete, with little success, though not because of Willis. We got a sense that Willis is a good man for Myra and Pete. The obstacles are big, however.
Grayson Oliver is a middle-schooler who has some theater experience and it showed. He played Pete as a young boy caught between his feuding mom and dad and a belief that living with dad and his falsely promised happiness would be best for him. Oliver’s character required several layers of sullen hurt, desperation, and anger, with the potential to turn into a quiet acceptance. It’s hard for a young boy to discover his idols are not all they seem. Oliver handled these turns well and we saw a believable Pete as a real character with real problems he needed to overcome.
The room Myra rents is owned by the Jacksons. Mr. Jackson was played by Eric Devlin, curmudgeonly old train engineer with lots of seniority, but not enough to avoid being bumped by someone older. Devlin’s appearances showed a dad you might meet in any family in America, hard-working, quiet, not given too much talk, gruff when faced with unplanned challenges, but loving of his family. Mr. Jackson doesn’t have much of an arc in this story, but his role is rock-solid in the family and Devlin gave him this quiet, comforting quality.
A curmudgeon needs a strong wife who anchors the home and sets expectations for the family, especially two daughters beginning to test the brave new world. Mrs. Jackson was created this by Rose Anne Holman. She imbued Mrs. Jackson with a kind of likable mother figure many of us grew up with, strong in her Methodist faith, quick to attack anyone with alternate views, but eventually accepting of changes she can’t control. It’s Mrs. Jackson and her daughters who say some of the most shocking things (by today’s standards) in Foote’s script, but they’re “out of the mouth of babes,” seemingly innocent. This was probably pretty innocent compared to some other things she’s had to say, but her commitment to these beliefs was important to convey a class of people that exist even today. Important also because Mrs. Jackson’s arc is what shows the audience how to become more tolerant.
Katie Bell Jackson is played by Marisa Duran and her sister, Vesta, is played by Kristi Mills. These sisters are actually the comedic relief in this show, with their wonderings about movie stars, Mexicans, and the all-important question of whether Jesus was a Methodist of Baptist. Vesta is the apparent older daughter, staying close to whatever mother believes, and thanks to Mills’ character choices, more reserved and rule-obeying. Katie Bell is the explorer, curious about the world, interested in going beyond her parents’ beliefs and testing the waters, even so much as sneaking out to a movie or striking up a relationship with a Mexican boy in town, a Baptist at that! Duran made this young girl’s curiosity fun to watch. There was looseness, a bit of wide-eyed view of the world in Duran’s choices that made Katie Bell seem innocent even when she challenged authority. We wanted to see someone in this town question the common beliefs and it was Katie Bell who brought a bigger world to Harrison.
Rhonda Durant played Gladys, the wife who left Willis for hoodlum who promised her riches, but does not want to grant a divorce. Durant wears curly red hair and dresses lavishly for this part and gives Gladys an attitude that sees the power Gladys has over Willis but also hurts for her own mistakes. It’s almost a pathetic character. There’s something truthful about Gladys – it’s hard to hate her. Durant rode this character like a roller-coaster as Gladys’ arc wound around Willis. She might be despicable, but there’s more vulnerability than bravado.
Estaquio Trevino is the other young boy in the town, the Mexican Baptist. Elmerson Mejia is a new young actor who showed some real chops in a first major effort. His character is the most religious in the town, part of a broken family from Mexico and son of a preacher, trying to convert Mexican Catholics. This required much of this young actor, the ability to sing religious songs in Mexican, the ability to believably preach and use bible verse, and the ability to wiggle under the skin of Mrs. Jackson enough to make her like him. This young character is a culture-changer and Mejia fit into Estaquio like a glove.
Ashenback was played by Nick Forrest. The zoot-suit wearing gangster has qualities of a man who thinks more of himself than he should. Forest showed this side of Ashenback on entry, ready to talk big and brave, and kidnap Gladys back if needed, but this quickly dissolved into a puddle of doubt and self-destruction as Ashenback learns he has lost the love of Gladys and cannot deal with that loss.
Jason Oliver played Gerard Anderson, the other ‘bad guy’ in this story. Gerard is Myra’s ex-husband. He wants Pete, has a Houston family who does not, and has a problem with drinking. Oliver made this guy pretty unlikable. While Gerard’s interest in his son seems genuine, he is probably more interested in Gladys. In some ways, Oliver’s character represents the bad side of the new era of the 1930s, maybe a metaphor for the stock market crash.
Talking Pictures was directed by Amber Devlin with a keen sense of timing. Foote’s script can be very slow compared to modern sensibilities of lightning fast media, so keeping it moving is imperative to keep the audience engaged. She did that well. She also kept the cast engaged, as they all looked like they fully committed to her vision for how to tell this story.
ICT will present Talking Pictures for only one more weekend, so check the links to get tickets. Take your family. It is a great look back at our Texas history and a view of a simpler time of life.
Irving Arts Center, Dupree Theatre, 3333 N. MacArthur, Suite 300, Irving, TX 75062
Plays through June 3rd
Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2:30 pm;Thursday June 1 at 7:30 pm.
Tickets range from $21 - $28.
Thursday June 1 from $19 - $21.
For information and tickets, go to www.irvingtheatre.org or call 972.594.6104.
Mr. Bowles is an Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN