Horton Foote's "Traveling Lady," Yes, Definitely; Isla van Tricht's "Underground," Yes; J. M. Synge's "Aran Islands," Sure Thing

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Horton Foote, who died at 92 in 2009, devoted most of his playwriting (originally television playwriting) to chronicling life in the Texas he knew from childhood. Mostly from childhood, it seems, and he did a bang-up bittersweet job of it, too.

The Traveling Lady--now at the Cherry Lane in one of those just-about-flawless revivals that Foote seems to invite—was introduced in 1957 on CBS and transferred to Broadway in 1954, both versions starring the great Kim Stanley in the title role. A three-act play, it was trimmed, presumably for a 2004 revival, and here it is again, under Austin Pendleton’s reliably sympathetic and spanking-clean direction.

Having traveled long from hometown Lovelady, Texas to Tyler to Harrison (Foote’s stand-in for his Wharton hometown) Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) and daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow) are tuckered out. Luckily, they wander into the front yard owned by Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi), which is often a gathering place for her middle-aged and older neighbors.

Georgette has made Harrison her destination because she thinks her husband Henry (PJ Sosko), just pardoned and therefore out of the nearby penitentiary where drunken behavior had landed him, will arrive there within the week. What the locals know—and they include Mrs. Breedlove’s son Slim Murray (Larry Bull), Mrs. Mavis (Lynn Cohen), daughter Sitter Mavis (Karen Ziemba) and Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner)—is that hometown boy Henry has been in town for almost a month and working for Mrs. Tillman, who’s made it her goal to get him off the booze once and for all.

She insists she has, and so it seems when Georgette and Henry, who has a past with string bands, reunite right there at Clara’s, (The appealing set and the lighting are by Harry Feiner.) When Henry goes off to find a home for his family and promises to be back within the hour, things transpire that cover the next few days and alter the tranquil atmosphere that initially marked Clara Breedlove’s place, which faces the town graveyard. That’s why death is often a tropic of conversation, as the opening scene featuring Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen) attests.

From a young age, Foote was taken with—make that possessed by—the gossip and the revealed secrets of his microcosmic-macrocosmic surroundings. The minute he recognized there was playwriting gold in them thar plains had to have been the minute he started recording them for his series of high-caliber works.

Here they are again, delivered by a strong cast. Hearty thanks to them all—and a fond nod to Ziemba, whose Sitter at one point wishes she’d learned to dance. The line gets a big laugh from audience members who know what a dancer Ziemba is and will be again this coming season in Prince of Broadway.

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Anyone familiar with the London tube system recognizes the constant “mind the gap” warning. Isla van Tricht sees the familiar heads-up as having a wider application and presents it in Underground, now at 59E59 Theatres.

James (Michael Jinks) and Claire (Bebe Sanders) connect through an online dating service without realizing they’ve been riding the same Northern line train—often in the same car—for an unspecified while. (Facing benches are the only set—no designer mentioned—and sound designer and music designer Jude Obermuller takes care of the rest.)

The two meet at a pub for what James considers a date. Claire maintains it isn’t. That gap alone indicates that James is a fellow unsure of himself but hopeful, while Claire is convinced that little or nothing is right with the world.

What perhaps will bring them together is a long delay on the night tube, a relatively new London amenity. They’re on it after leaving a pub where gregarious owner Steve (Andrew McDonald) has regaled them with his daughter’s wedding photos.

Claustrophobic, James complains they should have taken the night bus, which he pushed for, but Claire won the argument. Yet another gap, seemingly ameliorated when she’s able to calm him and they even share a few romantic moments.

James and Claire are both attractive figures, especially as played by the attractive Jinks and Sanders under Kate Tiernan’s crisp direction. Because they are, onlookers will likely hope, as James does, that they’ll click for the longer term. Do they? That’s where minding the gap comes in.

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In 1896 W. B. Yeats advised J M. Synge (the former is William Butler, the latter John Millington) to take a break from Paris and spend time on the Aran Islands, just off Galway on Ireland’s west coast.

It’s a good thing he did—for Synge and for the rest of us. At the moment Irish Repertory audiences are benefitting from The Aran Islands, Joe O’Byrne’s adaptation of the journals Synge’s kept over the years he spent in Inishmaan and other Aran Islands towns.

Under O’Byrne’s direction and within O’Byrne’s dramatically intricate lighting design, Brendan Conroy plays the writer. He’s first seen coming into a harbor, disembarking the ship and confronting the unrelentingly rocky terrain. From then and through two relatively brief acts, Conroy recalls Synge’s experiences.

One theme that emerges is death, not an unusual focus in anything to do with Irish literature. More than once, Synge refers to keening, once over a grave where a previously buried skull is unearthed. And that’s quite a tale.

Three times Synge brings up an Aran Islands storyteller called Pat Doran and twice impersonates Doran telling those macabre stories, one of which includes incidents familiar from William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and The Merchant of Venice.

Conroy, a large man wearing scruffy clothes and shabby shoes (Marie Tierney’s design), has a long, narrow, lined face and big-knuckled hands he turns into Doran’s arthritic claws. His delivery is as consistently stormy as the inclement weather on which he frequently reports. He’s like a theatrical camp counselor residing over a campfire.

There’s good reason for that. O’Byrne is telling the story of a man who told stories that call on yet another storyteller. He makes the point that stories predate recorded time and that Shakespeare, too, drew his tales from previous accounts. His underlying message is that stories are forever. The strength of The Aran Islands is that there’s no denying the point.