Writing from the Heart

Horton Foote’s new play draws on his Texas hometown roots

The stage direction says, “A child is heard practicing again on the piano in the distance. Twilight is beginning. LYD goes to the window. She seems very weak and tired. She turns and sees an imaginary person come in the screen door.”

Lyd (short for Lida) Davis speaks: “Why, come in, Lillie. I’m so relieved to see you. They told me there was a terrible automobile accident and you were killed [LYD picks up a banjo.] Yes’m. We’re a family of musicians. [She strums a few chords, stops, points to a photograph on the wall.]

“That’s Emily when she was a toe dancer. She was grace itself. She weaved back and forth like a pretty flower. My daughter Emily. Certainly you passed her on the way out. She’s married to a man that adores her. Emily was always so popular. Her popularity with men she gets from me Mama. Papa. Mama Emily has married a man that’s very sarcastic and despises me. They want to take my house. I’ll tell Sadie. I’ll tell brother Davis. He’s dead. They wont take my house. They certainly never while I live [will] take this house.”

This is near the end of “The Day Emily Married,” a new—or in any event newly made-manifest—play by Horton Foote of Greenwich Village and Wharton, Texas, whose works, beautiful from the first, get more and more beautiful and more and more wrenching as the years pass.

The Lyd of the Primary Stages production that opens August 3 is the inimitable Estelle Parsons; daughter Emily is in the sensitive, capable hands of Hallie Foote, Horton’s daughter; Lyd’s husband Lee, Emily’s father, is played by William Biff McGuire; and Richard Murray, the good-looking rat who marries Emily—the second good-looking rat to marry Emily—is portrayed by James Colby.

Rounding out the cast are Terri Keane, Delores Mitchell and Pamela Payton-Wright. The director is Michael Wilson, who wouldn’t be doing what he does if it weren’t for something Horton Foote said to him once upon a time.

The present playgoer a couple of years ago, upon seeing “The Carpetbaggers Children,” a drama of three sisters paralleling (but in no way imitating) Chekhov’s three sisters, observed that Horton Foote always writes from reality—reality transmuted, transformed.

“I can tell you,” playwright Foote had said then over the phone from Wharton, Texas, “I know five different sets of three sisters who grew up in Wharton, but you wouldn’t recognize them from the play.”

Last week, asked about the current drama’s Lyd Davis, a lady of fears, fondness, foolishness and freezes (she’s always got the chills), Horton said over the phone from his far West Village apartment, “I wouldn’t let this play be done for a number of years. Although the story was different [from actual fact], I was afraid the central character [Lyd] might be recognizable.”

Then, with a short laugh: “Even if people in Wharton, unless I’ve won an Oscar”—he’s won two, for “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and “Tender Mercies” (1983)—“don’t know what I’m doing.

The woman whom he transmuted into Lyd Davis has gone to her reward—a number of years now, as a matter of fact. She was a very forceful character. Almost all of them are—all the source humanity re-sculpted by Pygmalion Foote.

Was the original Lyd a member of Horton’s family or just someone in Wharton?

“Most people in Wharton are in my family,” he said dryly. “Not now, but then it was like that.”

And the stuff about investing in oil—the obsession that drives the no-goodnik of the piece, Emily’s husband Richard. Is that true?

“No. Well, it’s true in the sense that it happened to many people, but not in this instance. But you know, as I look back, I’m surprised how the oil culture pervaded so many of my plays.”

Emily, the daughter in this play, seems to have had a bit of a case on her father. I don’t know—this playgoer said—if Hallie Foote has a case on her father…

“You’d better ask Hallie that. Shell give you a straight answer I guess the father in the play is kind of an Atticus figure”—Atticus Finch, the quiet hero lawyer of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

There are a handful of other Horton Foote plays that have been held back by their author, like this one, from production.

“Not that they’re specifically about actual incidents, but enough to make me a little nervous. I’m not in the business of exposing people or trading on their difficulties. If in any sense somebody might be hurt, I just wait. Of course if you wait long enough, you’ll be all alone,” said Foote who was born in Wharton on March 14, 1916.

Two beats. Then: “Theresa Helburn [whose Theatre Guild produced Horton’s first hit, “The Trip to Bountiful,” in 1953] used to say: ‘You can tell my age when I tell you the first thing I do in the mornings is read the obit page.’ And she was a very forceful lady.”

So how are you, Horton?

“I’m pretty good.” Pause. “I lost one of my best friends this year. Patricia Broderick, Matthews mother. I gave Jimmy [her husband, the late James Broderick] his first job in television, you know. And gave Matthew his first part, in ‘On Valentines Day,’ at Herbert’s studio [the Herbert Berghof Studio], oh lord, back before ‘Tender Mercies.’

“Then I moved away to New Hampshire for a while [in disgust and despair at New York theater], and then when I came back we renewed our friendship.”

Was Foote in on the casting of “The Day Emily Married?”

“Yes, absolutely. I get very involved.”

Foote has been a friend and admirer of Estelle Parsons since “way, way back when we did a television show together, but never worked with her since until she and Hallie and I did ‘Last of the Thorntons’ [in 2000]. She has a first-rate theater mind.”

He and Biff McGuire have been friends since early television, but hadn’t worked together until Foote’s 1995 “The Young Man From Atlanta.”

What about Michael Wilson, director of this show, and of “The Carpetbaggers Children,” and other works by Horton Foote?

”Actually I was lecturing in North Carolina, oh lord, 15, 20 years ago. They had done ‘Trip to Bountiful.’ A young man came up to me and said: ‘I’d like some advice.’ I said: ‘I don’t give advice.’

“It turned out he’d just graduated from the University of North Carolina and was about to go out into the world. He wondered whether to go to television, to films or to theater. I said: ‘I don’t give advice, but I would go into theater.’ And that’s what he did”—as the rest of us can find out by taking in the new play that runs until the night before the start of the Republican National Convention.

The streets will be full of police and Republicans, said Horton Foote, who was born in Texas before Jeb and George W’s father ever got there. Tender mercies indeed.

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