Primary Stages has a quiet winner in "Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote." Directed by Pam MacKinnon with lucid understatement and enacted with precision and delicacy by an nine-person cast, the show movingly conveys the joys and woes of average lives in the titular Texas small town.
The first two pieces are shorter and set in 1928. We begin with the comic "Blind Date," a 35-minute work in which the blunt and truculent Sarah Nancy must endure her genteel Aunt Dolores' determined efforts to get her married off as her bemused Uncle Robert watches while craving a dinner his wife has been too busy to cook. Next is "The One-Armed Man," which packs a great deal of observation about class and economic disparities into its 15 minutes as it details the story of McHenry, a cotton-gin worker who lost an arm in an accident on the job and wants his ex-boss, C.W. Rowe, to restore it.
"The Midnight Caller" is the most substantial of the three plays, clocking in at 50 minutes and closing the program with a wallop. Leaping to 1952, it chronicles what happens when Ralph Johnston, a divorced man from out of town, and Helen Crews, a supposedly loose local woman, move separately into a boarding house heretofore occupied by three very different ladies. There's Alma Jean Jordan, a prissy moralistic spinster who likes her independence; "Cutie" Spencer, a fun-loving typist with bad luck in attracting men; and Miss Rowena Douglas, an old-maid schoolteacher resigned to her circumscribed life and determined to enjoy it as best she can. The title character is indeed a visitor of Helen's, but not in the way you might expect. He is Harvey Weems, her former suitor, a rich boy who wanted to marry the lower-class Helen but was thwarted by their mothers' joint opposition. Harvey starts to show up every night on the front porch at midnight, where, thoroughly drunk and desperately lonely, he repeatedly calls Helen's name. It naturally causes a scandal that becomes the talk of the town and has no easy solution.
Everyone in the company gets an opportunity to shine, some more than once. Jayne Houdyshell's Miss Rowena glows, like the lightning bugs she likes to sit and watch, suffused with wisdom and warmth. Houdyshell's delivery of the haunting final moment of "Caller" is tough and heartbreaking. Hallie Foote is a restrained hoot as the dynamic Dolores, who just can't fathom what she sees as her headstrong niece's self-destructive behavior, then is suitably guarded as the diplomatic, levelheaded Mrs. Crawford, who runs that boarding house with a firm hand. Andrea Lynn Green is a study in contrasts as Sarah Nancy and "Cutie," a bundle of hilariously sullen energy as the first and filled with genuine sweetness and an attractive openness as the second. Mary Bacon is all angles as Alma Jean, for whom she creates a particular and perceptive body language. Jenny Dare Paulin expertly conveys the desperation behind Helen's insistent composure.
The men are every bit as good. Jeremy Bobb gives C.W. a clueless condescension without obscuring his humanity and listens with fierce sympathy as the mysterious Ralph. Alexander Cendese differentiates the equally troubled McHenry and Harvey with aplomb, each a concentration of specific angst. A bright buoyancy is leavened by a callow sense of entitlement in Evan Jonigkeit's beaming Felix, the young man Dolores dredges up for Sarah Nancy. Devon Abner's Robert is full of perplexed middle-class masculinity, while his Pinkey, an assistant to C.W., is more rough-hewn and frayed.
Marion Williams' simple set ingeniously changes perspectives to create a different environment for each play, and Tyler Micoleau's subtle lighting makes good use of shadows. Kay Voyce's costumes are invaluable in suggesting period and sensitive to character. Broken Chord has provided the tone-enhancing original music.
Foote was a master miniaturist, and "Harrison, TX" is definite proof of that old adage that good things can come in small packages.
Presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., NYC. Aug. 14–Sept. 15. Schedule varies. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com. Casting by Stephanie Klapper Casting.
Critic's Score: A