More than a mere keeper of the flame

Evan Jonigkeit and Hallie Foote. Photo © 2012 James Leynse

Hallie Foote takes her dad’s legacy, makes it contemporary

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  Some people get up in the morning and go to Wall Street. Or to their job in a department store. Or a supermarket. Or a newspaper office. Or to fly an airplane.

Horton Foote gets up in the morning and writes plays.

But what plays!

The above is what I once wrote about the pro of pros — who had learned his craft writing short and tight for good people like Fred Coe (in television of the 1950s).

One of those small screen one-act plays — and I think I caught it with my own two eyes and ears — was “The Midnight Caller,” about a pathetic alcoholic in his 30s who pierces the Texas night with his cries to the lovely girl who once loved him but, out of exhaustion, does so no more.

It was first staged in the 1950s, as a matter of fact, at The Neighborhood Playhouse — the esteemed acting school on East 54th Street — in a production directed by the equally esteemed Sanford Meisner (with an unknown named Robert Duvall as the pitiable drunk).

“My mother and father saw that production,” says Hallie Foote, actress daughter of Lillian and Horton Foote, “and that’s how Robert Duvall got into ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” — the movie that won Horton Foote an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

“My father always loved the one-act form,” says Hallie — for its discipline, compression, synthesis, vivacity — “and I always loved ‘The Midnight Caller.’ ”

Hallie Foote and her husband Devon Abner are, along with actress Jayne Houdyshell, the prime movers of “Harrison, TX” — the triple bill of short, biting one-act plays by Horton Foote, at Primary Stages through September 15.

The three plays are “Blind Date,” a farce of sorts about the most disagreeable young woman you ever came across in your life; “The Midnight Caller,” which replaces farce with pathos; and “The One-Armed Man,” a slow but sure little shocker that seems all the more terrifying in the light of recent events in Aurora, Colorado.

All three plays are set in Harrison, Texas (the pseudonym for Horton Foote’s real-life hometown of Wharton, Texas), in the oil and cotton territory of the lonesome worked-out lands around Houston and Galveston and the Gulf.

The director of all three is Pam MacKinnon, who is having a busy season, with “Harrison, TX” coming immediately on the heels of “Clybourne Park.”

“Blind Date” is set in a boarding house for unmarried ladies — a sort of Horton Foote specialty. Hallie Foote is one of those ladies. The plum role of super-bored young Sarah Nancy — who hates everything, including music and dance and men who just want to take her to the movies — goes to Andrea Lynn Green. Abner is one of Sarah Nancy’s unfortunate would-be suitors.

“So,” says Ms. Foote, “one of these plays is very funny, and one is very dark” — “The One-Armed Man,” set in the cotton mill that has destroyed a workman’s arm — “and one (‘Midnight Caller’) is…how to put it?…sad but lyrical.”

She lets it dangle there, then adds, “I never know how to describe that play.”

She stops, thinks, thinks some more…lets it go. So would her father, if he were here.

The three principals in the current “Midnight Caller” are Jenny Dare Paulin as the emotionally exhausted Helen, Alexander Cendese as the pitiable lush who calls and calls her name in the night and Jeremy Bobb as the fellow who catches her on the rebound. Hallie plays the worried landlady.

Cendese and Bobb are the soft-soaping boss and the enraged, physically wrecked employee who confront one another in “The One-Armed Man.” Well, the insulted and injured mill worker confronts. The glad-handing mill owner tries to fluff him off.

Hallie Foote lost her mother 20 years ago and her father 40 months ago. The Foote children — Horton Jr., Hallie and playwright Daisy — are children no longer, but they do not forget their heritage.

When she met Casey Childs, founder and executive producer of Primary Stages, Hallie told her “that I had the desire to do some of the plays of my father and a play called ‘Him’ by my sister Daisy. It’s all about the land where she grew up, in southern New Hampshire” — where Horton Foote had taken himself and his family out of the New York/Hollywood rat race for some 15 lost yet unlost years.

That’s next at Primary Stages — Daisy Foote’s “Him.”

Daisy’s play is, says her sister, “You know, like my dad’s stuff. It’s all a combination” of names, places, people, events, emotions.

“The One-Armed Man” and “Blind Date” were done long years ago at the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the H.B. [Uta Hagen/Herbert Berghof] Studio on Bank Street, but, says the playwright’s oldest daughter, never in New York since then. Until now.

The thing about Hallie Foote is that she not only keeps her father alive, she kept him alive when he was alive and working (“Dividing the Estate,” “The Orphans’ Home Cycle”) and reaping late-life honors like the Pulitzer Prize.

You could write a one-act play about it.

Harrison, TX: Three Plays
by Horton Foote
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Presented by Hallie Foote
& Jayne Houdyshell
Through September 15
At Primary Stages (59 E. 59th St., btw. Park & Madison Aves.)
For tickets ($70), call 212-279-4200
or visit primarystages.org

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