October 20, 2012

"Him" Offers a Portrait of Complex Family Dynamics—Both On and Off the Stage

Hallie Foote has been celebrated as the foremost interpreter of the plays by her late father Horton Foote and more recently of those by her younger sister Daisy.  But as I watched Daisy Foote’s latest play Him, now playing in a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters, I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to see some other actress in the part.

Like her father, Daisy Foote focuses on people who live in small towns but have big dreams. He set his plays in his native Texas.  She puts her in New Hampshire where she grew up. Family dynamics fuel the action in the works of both father and daughter.  

The title character in Him is the dying owner of his town’s failing general store. He is cared for by three middle-aged children who have never left home, are financially dependent on their father and desperate because business is so bad that their own cupboard is almost bare of food.  

The eldest is Pauline, a spinster who is haunted by the memory of the unborn child she either aborted or miscarried years earlier and by the feeling that life owes her more.  The middle brother Henry is a gay man who secretly yearns after a married drinking buddy.  And the youngest is Farley, a mentally impaired man-child.

After the unseen patriarch dies offstage early in the first act, the siblings discover that he had secretly bought parcels of land that are now extremely valuable. This legacy has the potential to change everything about the way they live—including their relationships with one another.

Comparisons between their situation and that of the dysfunctional family squabbling over property in Horton Footes’ Dividing the Estate are not only unavoidable (click here to see my review of that) but underscored by the presence of Hallie Foote who plays a similar character in both.

In fact, Hallie Foote’s portrayal of Him’s Pauline will be familiar to anyone who has seen her in almost any other play in which she’s appeared. There is the same slightly southern drawl to her voice, the same jittery nervousness in her mannerisms, the same deadpan affect.

The effect can be entertaining and Foote won a deserved Tony nomination for her humorous supporting turn in Dividing the Estate. But Pauline is the pivotal figure in Him and the role demands more subtle skills.

Alas, Evan Yinoulis’ straightforward direction is unable to push Foote into new territory or to bring out the nuances that would turn Pauline into a distinctive person. I sat there imagining what a more inventive actor like Elizabeth Marvel or Marin Ireland might have done with the role.

Other members of the cast fare better.  Tim Hopper’s Henry is particularly sympathetic and it’s great to see a gay man played as a regular guy without any clichéd affectations, which is the way most of the gay men I know are.

And Adam LeFevre does an equally nice job with Farley.  Actors tend to go overboard when playing the mentally disabled but LeFevre makes Farley a particular person with passions of his own, including a romance with a similarly impaired neighbor played by Adina Verson.

 The three main actors step out of their roles at moments during the play to deliver poetic monologs. It takes a while to figure out the connection between their recitations and the rest of the play. Both Daisy Foote and Yinoulis share the blame for that confusion but Him’s bigger problem cuts closer to home. 

By all accounts, the Footes are devoted to one another and nothing like the battling kin in the plays they put on (click here to read a piece about the sisters) and so I imagine that Hallie Foote will continue to perform the family's works even though it might be better— perhaps even for her—if she didn't.

No comments: