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Like many of Horton Foote’s plays, Talking Pictures is set in the small town of Harrison, Texas, but the small town motif is used here to generate a strong sense of looking out and yearning to be anywhere else. And yet, as Stage West’s languid and reflective adaptation of the proves, the characters’ constant striving outwards only serves to draws the audience in to the wistful drama.
Almost everyone wants to be out of Harrison, or is being forced out, or aches to be rid of an unwanted situation. The year is 1929 and Myra is a grass widow trying to support a 14-year-old son (with Houston wanderlust himself) by accompanying silent films on the piano; however, she is soon to be a relic with the imminent advent of “talkies.” She rents a room with a goodly family in the perpetual predicament of having to relocate to follow the father’s job as a train engineer. A quiet bricklayer is seeking to court Myra, although he is only separated, and not divorced from his social climber of a wife who left him five years ago.
Perhaps a bit folksy on the surface, the pleasure of the play is in Foote’s ear for homespun truths and ability to create sympathetic characters (even the “villains”) all while providing deep cathartic laughs.
Director Jim Covault paces the play as slow as the Texas heat is oppressive. Actors shamble around, speak with tired effort, mop at their sweat, and are often bent over with the weight of their psychic loads. It’s a clever decision that brings out the heavy gravity and power that a small town exerts over its inhabitants, and one that casts a soothing spell upon the audience as well.
Dana Schultes, who portrays Myra, delivers a natural, beautifully inward performance. Her voice quavers with barely suppressed sadness, and her face wears a smile that is not a smile until one transformative moment towards the end of the show.
As Willis, the sad-eyed bricklayer, Thomas Ward also employs an understated approach with only slightly less success. He is awkward in an endearing way, yet earnest and polite in his wooing of the reluctant Myra. Mikaela Krantz contributes quite an indomitable spark as Katie Bell, the precocious daughter of the host family. She yearns for anything outside her constrained little world whether they are movies, dancing music, or the forbidden exotic environs of neighboring Mexico.
Finally, Julian Gonzales as Estaquio Trevino, the Mexican preacher’s son is a gentle and heartfelt presence with a voice of an angel. His scenes with Katie Bell and her family are some of the production’s best.
Lonesome trains, movie stars, other religious sects, and big city lights beckon the characters of Talking Pictures to escape. The gift of this play is that we find their simple strivings compelling and expansive beyond the size of any town.
Photo: Dana Schultes and Thomas Ward (Credit: Buddy Myers)