Playwright: 24 Horton Foote. At: Goodman Own Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Phone: 312-443-3800; $10-$38 . Runs through: March 2
Exquisite and intricate as a swath of heirloom lace, Horton Foote's Talking Pictures is a delicate marvel of a drama. In our contemporary world of ever-hectic flash and sizzle, of quick-cut editing and 10-second talking points, it's tempting to describe Talking Pictures as old-fashioned. It isn't. Under director Henry Wishcamper's astute eye, an achingly wonderful ensemble creates a story as immediate as family.
Set on the cusp of the Great Depression, Pictures is both universal and deeply rooted in a very particular time and place. The complex web of sisters, mothers, sons and lovers in dusty, small-town Harrison, Texas, gleams with everyday transcendence.
As for the characters, they are heroic in their basic decency—remarkable, unglamorous counterpoints to the movie stars whose silent adventures, and looming extinction, serve as a metaphor for the cataclysmic changes just over Harrison's dusty horizon. Although very much an ensemble piece, the heart of Talking Pictures lies in Myra ( Jenny McKnight—hold that thought ) , a divorced single mother who supports her son by playing the piano as silent movies unspool at the local theater. With the onset of talkies, Myra's livelihood is precarious, something her ex-husband Gerard ( Dan Waller, perfectly capturing the abusive swagger and insecure bullying of a self-destructive charmer ) takes sadistic glee in pointing out.
Myra's tenuous stability is paralleled by the Jackson family, who rent her the single room where she and son Pete ( Bubba Weiler, absolutely authentic as a young teenager who both loves and resents his mother ) live. Mr. Jackson ( Jason Wells ) is in danger of losing his job with the railroad. Mrs. Jackson ( Judy Blue ) has her hard-working hands full anchoring adolescent daughters Katie Bell ( Lee Stark ) and Vesta ( Kathleen Romond ) with a sense of security and a firm moral compass in the face of impending turmoil and uncertainty. And the economy isn't the seismic shift destined to reshape the world of Harrison: A community of Mexican immigrants is taking hold just over the railroad tracks, personified by the young, aspiring missionary Estaquio ( Gabriel Notarangelo, irresistibly endearing ) . Finally, there's Myra's earnest, plain-spoken suitor Willis ( Philip Earl Johnson, a rock of unassuming goodness ) , his not-quite ex-wife Gladys ( Audrey Francis, hilariously noisy and brazenly sensual ) and her gun-slinging, hot-tempered paramour Ashenback ( E. Vincent Teninty ) .
While there's not a weak link in this impeccable cast, Blue and McKnight offer reason enough to beat a hasty path to the Goodman box office. They're subtly magnificent, mining depths within depths from the riches in Foote's script. A clichéd but ugly truth: Good roles for women over 30 are as rare as a profanity-free David Mamet scene. But even were they a dime a dozen, what Blue and McKnight deliver here would make Talking Pictures a thing of sublime rarity. With tickets for Talking Pictures available for as an astounding $10 ( ! ) , the start of the Goodman's Horton Foote Festival is cause for midwinter celebration.