Chicago Theatre Review
Easier Made Than Kept
The Old Friends – Raven Theatre
Victorian author Samuel Butler once wrote that “Friendship, like money, is easier made than kept.” His simile is an apt assessment of the relationships depicted by the late prolific American playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner Horton Foote in this 1982 dramatic comedy. A continuing saga of the folks in Foote’s favored fictional town of Harrison, Texas, this melodrama plays out like an episode of “Dynasty” or “Knots Landing.”
In an interminably long first scene, during which volumes of exposition is laid out for the audience to understand these people, two families related by blood, marriage or past feuds, who have come together for a celebration. They’ve all gathered to welcome the arrival of Hugo, the prodigal son, finally returning home from Venezuela in search of his fortune, and his dutiful wife, Sybil. Downing cocktails and sashaying around the living room of Julia and Albert Price’s exclusive ranch style home are the guests. They include Julia and Hugo’s mother, Mamie, who has been reluctantly boarding with the Prices; Gertrude, a very wealthy and power-hungry widow; and Howard, Gertrude’s farm foreman and the younger brother of Gertrude’s husband. Also present is Tom Underwood, a fortune-hunting young stud who’ll do anything to get achieve wealth.
When the car finally arrives near the end of the scene we learn that Hugo has suddenly died, leaving Sybil alone, homeless and without a cent to her name. The remainder of the play concerns the rekindling of a romance between the newly-widowed Sybil and her former admirer, Howard. Alcohol fuels the fire and the the play turns into a fireworks festival of jealousy, conniving, screaming and seduction. Furniture flies, friendships are torn apart and new alliances are formed. By the play’s final curtain the audience’s sympathy lies with poor Hattie and Catherine, the two put-upon servants who tirelessly work for Julia and Gertrude.
Horton Foote has written many stunning, honest and profound one-act and full-length plays, featuring all kinds of wonderful, sincere characters. He’s also responsible for some of the finest screenplays ever to grace a movie screen. “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Dividing the Estate,” “The Orphan’s Home Cycle” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta” are just a few of his fine theatrical works, with his Oscar-winning “Tender Mercies” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the top of his much-accoladed list of screenplays. This play seems to be in a category all its own. There’s a touch of Tennessee Williams in the story, with a subtle nod to the comedies of Anton Chekov. But otherwise, this production is a loud, over-the-top free-for-all that seems uncharacteristic of the playwright.
Director Michael Menedian is fresh off his latest triumphant, smash-hit at Raven, “Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys,” as well many other exciting productions. This play isn’t quite up to his talents. Like Williams’ dramas, this is a play that features its female characters. The cast gives it their all but this strident episode of The Real Housewives of Harrison, Texas is just a difficult beast to tame. JoAnn Montemurro stands out as wealthy Gertrude, a braying female Donald Trump who equates being rich and powerful with the entitlement to say and do anything she pleases. The always wonderful Marssie Mencotti brings a sweet, warm honesty to her portrayal of Mamie, the soft-spoken, somewhat confused family matriarch, and Judy Lea Steele makes Julia the crass cougar that Foote must’ve intended. Lori Meyers is competent in the less flashy role of Sybil, but with all the histrionics going on around her the actress has a hard time holding her own. The men are less impressive, although veteran Will Casey has his moments as Howard.
The real star of this production, however, is Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s incredibly versatile set design. The Act I ranch home ingeniously becomes Gertrude’s plush, champagne-toned boudoir, in Act II, and then it surprisingly turns into Sybil’s modest rental house. Working together with Mealah Heidenreich’s tasteful props and set dressing, three completely different environments materialize before the audience’s eyes.
For theatergoers who like their melodramas loud, strident emphasizing unexpected, broad comedy, this may be their cup of tea. We see a bevy of friendships that are, like money, easier made than kept. But for audiences expecting another of Horton Foote’s heartfelt dramas, simple in story, yet steeped in honest, quirky characterizations, this will be a disappointing evening of theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 27-March 26 by Raven Theatre Company, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the theatre box office, by calling 773-338-2177 or by going to www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com