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It's always an event to see Tony-nominated actress Hallie Foote in a play written by her father, the late Horton Foote. Hallie's dry delivery is a perfect match for Horton's understated humor, and this irresistible combination is now on display in The Old Friends at Signature Theatre Company. As Hallie notes, it's fitting that the play getting its posthumous premiere at Signature, which devoted a season to Foote's works and produced his masterful Orphans' Home Cycle in 2009. Meanwhile, the Broadway production of The Trip to Bountiful is attracting new fans to Foote's loving but clear-eyed view of family life in his native Texas. At Broadway.com's request, Hallie Foote shared memories of her father's work process and explained why the current off-Broadway production of The Old Friends is so meaningful to everyone involved.
My father was an obsessive writer. He couldn’t not write—it was like breathing to him. Growing up, I completely took it for granted. I thought this was how all writers approach their work, but I soon realized that wasn’t the case. My father was such a good listener and observer, and he produced more than 60 plays and screenplays in his lifetime. It was like something divine pouring out of him, which I think is so beautiful, and I know he was grateful for it. He loved what he did, but he also knew that not everyone is lucky enough to get to do what they love. He was so dedicated to writing, it was like almost witnessing something mystical.
Toward the end of his life, my father lived with my husband and me. Sometimes, when he wasn’t able to sleep, he would just get up and write. He learned to give in to it—not to fight it. I think there was so much inside of him that needed to come out. He loved my mother so much, and when she died, I was concerned. They had a terribly close relationship. She was only 69, and I thought, “What’s going to happen to him?” But I realized, in a way, he was OK because he would still be able to write. Just before he passed away, I suddenly noticed he was writing less. It was almost as if his time here was finished. I’ve missed him so much since his death in 2009, but thanks to his writing, I feel that he is always around me.
I’m so thrilled that my father’s 1953 play, The Trip to Bountiful, is being revisited on Broadway, and at the very same time, The Old Friends is receiving its world premiere. Both productions are directed by Michael Wilson, a great supporter of my father’s work and someone who collaborated with him for the last 20 years of his life. Michael is a real visionary when it comes to my father and his work. Dad loved his theatrical sense. Said it was a real gift. Michael and I found early drafts of The Old Friends, originally called The Dispossessed, dating back to the ’60s—the title was changed to The Old Friends in the early ’70s. Although I don’t remember my father writing it, we performed a reading of it in 2001 with Jim Houghton, artistic director of Signature Theatre Company. I played Sybil, and Betty Buckley played Gertrude, and we all absolutely fell in love with the play.
During that first reading, what I remember most was how moved I was by the writing. It’s timeless, like so many of my father’s plays, but it’s also a darker story than he usually tells. He explores, with some humor, the alcoholism and narcissism of these very strong personalities. There’s one couple that begins to find their way in the midst of the chaos, and they emerge as a hopeful force. In his hometown of Wharton, Texas, my father studied people who had lots of money but were deeply unhappy, with no real direction in life. In his notes, we discovered that he modeled many of the characters in this play after real people in Wharton—he’d written down their names, and we even found pictures.
From that first reading, we knew we wanted to do a production of The Old Friends, and I know Betty did as well. But the show has nine cast members, three sets and a lot of complications. Financially, it’s a difficult play to produce, so the fact that we have the Signature Theatre backing us up is terrific. Jim Houghton and my father have been collaborating since 1994, and it’s so gratifying to continue to work with him. We have a home at the Signature, and it feels wonderful to get to do this play there.
When Michael, Jim and I contacted the actors we hoped would star in The Old Friends, something wonderful happened: They all agreed to do it. Betty said of course she would play Gertrude, and that made me so happy. The wonderful Lois Smith said she would play Mamie. I’ve been an admirer of Veanne Cox for years, and I was thrilled that she agreed to play Julia. Adam LeFevre and I did a play of my sister’s, Him, at Primary Stages, and when we called to see if he would play Albert, he was right there. I feel so blessed to have Novella Nelson, Cotter Smith, Sean Lyons and Melle Powers in our cast as well. Lois Smith and Betty Buckley had both worked with my father, and it was fantastic to assemble this collection of friends to work on the play.
In rehearsals, we talked a lot about my father, and it’s so gratifying that this cast appreciates and understands his writing. His plays tend to be difficult, but everyone is committed to discovering as much as they can about their characters. It’s delightful to see The Old Friends bloom, like a little flower just starting to open. All of our hard work—and my father’s hard work—is finally paying off.