What constitutes binding ties? Are they marital, familial or just familiarity? Horton Foote looks to untangle this question in the posthumous premiere; The Old Friends. Set in 1965 outside of Houston, Texas six adults are locked in a combustible and static pattern of interaction. The (often alcohol fueled) attacks and schemes are delivered daily. They may be dressed slightly differently from day to day, but they are the same greed, jealousy and loneliness inspired displays. These displays make for some phenomenal scenes and performances but are difficult to absorb.
Julia (Veanne Cox) is married to fabulously wealthy Albert (Adam LeFevre). Her mother Mamie (Lois Smith) lives with them. The play opens with the family awaiting the arrival of Julia’s ne’er do well brother and his wife Sybil (Hallie Foote.) Sybil arrives alone, freshly widowed and destitute. Mamie is distraught but not for reasons one might assume. Her son is dead and so is her plan of living with him (evidently life with her daughter is a virtual living hell, or so we’re told.) Small, stunned, nondescript Sybil is left alone in the living room when tornado Gertrude (Betty Buckley) arrives. In perhaps the greatest character study of pure narcissism ever to hit a stage, Gertrude goes on the most delicious rant about how she’s been treated at the cocktail party. Julia has been hitting on her man Howard (Cotter Smith) who incidentally is the brother of Gertrude’s late husband. There sits newly widowed Sybil looking and being treated like part of the furnishings. She’s better off to be frank, as there is an odd vortex at work here. Unlike Mamie’s reported mistreatment we actually see all the other wretchedness. These people are caught in an interpersonal dance that one might expect on a remote island not amongst people with the means to escape. Julia and Gertrude fight over the same men over and over again. They are not related and have gobs of money. Why are they locked in this mode, dragging everyone in and down with them? It’s not clear.
What is clear is that these parts are written with actors in mind and director Michael Wilson makes the most of that. Betty Buckley’s Gertrude will be the standard for every subsequent performer. It is no easy feat to portray drunkenness and keep a character interesting. Ms. Buckley is riveting and uses her voice (not surprisingly) in the most powerful way. The soft raspy sadness that bubbles up after one too many, the controlled and uncontrolled rage and the lyrical flirtations make for a vocal symphony. Howard (or probably any other human) is no match to her passions and fervor. He is merely there to keep away the loneliness (as we learn in a confession reminiscent of a 3:00 AM Judy Garland phone call) and she will fight to the finish to keep her fear of loneliness at bay. Howard however has been pining for Sybil for years. He seems a bright and interesting guy and it’s hard to see why he’d be holding a torch for such a meek and mousy woman. Perhaps it’s simply the result of thirty years in the presence of Gertrude and Julia. Julia (who seems to go after Howard in some sort of non-sibling rivalry with Gertrude) is loud and boozy as well. She just wants to have a good time and feels everyone is standing in her way. Her wig, physique and mannerisms often hint to Carol Burnett’s poignant portrayal of Eunice. Again, why don’t these people leave? This question hangs in the air as a trip to New York City is cancelled by Gertrude. Why didn’t they just go without her? How does a woman who’s not even related hold the reins so firmly?
We never really discover what the ties are. The ending of the play is so abrupt as to suggest that there are no answers to be had.
The Old Friends is playing (August 20 – September 29) at the Signature Theatre