Nostalgia is a powerful thing. The lure of the past, of better times, is affecting enough that the condition was once considered a full-blown disease. But the most painful part of this fondness for times gone by is the fact that no matter how hard you reminisce and yearn, you can never truly go home. The complexities of this feeling lie at the root of Horton Foote’s 1955 play The Roads to Home, which is being thoughtfully revived by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
The Roads to Home is a triptych of disparate scenes depicting life in 1920s Texas, centered around three Houston housewives: Mabel (Hallie Foote), Vonnie (Harriet Harris), and Annie (Rebecca Brooksher). The first, “A Nightingale,” focuses on emotionally disturbed Annie’s unexpected house call to Mabel and Vonnie; the second, “The Dearest of Friends,” takes place six months later, as Mabel supports Vonnie through her marital troubles. The third scene, “Spring Dance,” is set four years later, switching the play’s setting from Houston to the Austin mental institution where Annie now resides.
Threading together these three women’s experiences is their shared nostalgia for the small town life to which they can never return. Mabel and Annie recall memories of their days in Harrison, Texas (a frequent setting of Foote’s work), while Vonnie dwells on her small Louisiana hometown. Mabel and Annie maintain their connections to those in Harrison, seeking out and finding a source of comfort in those who share a part of their past, even as they continue on new paths in the big city. As the three navigate crises and face bitter realities, it’s this desperate grip on a seemingly idyllic view of home that gets them through – not the “big city” or institutional home in which they currently reside, but the rose-colored pleasures of pasts they’ve left behind.
As the women take comfort in their pasts, the production offers its own nostalgic charms. Jeff Cowie’s minimalist set design, which relies on key set pieces – a door frame, a kitchen cabinet – against a stark black background and David C. Woolard’s period-perfect costumes (complete with some stunning 1920s shoes) perfectly evoke the simplicity and casual elegance of a bygone era, sparking a sense of cultural nostalgia that reminds us, too, of the pleasures of a simpler time. There’s a careful pace to Foote’s play, which relies more on casual conversation and stated exposition than dramatic events to carry it through. It leisurely paints a picture of a more uncomplicated time, when afternoons meant taking a streetcar to a picture show, neighbors called on each other, and everyone knew each other’s names. Through this combination of design and simplicity of language, the atmospheric production manages to understatedly, yet perfectly, evoke the comforts and pleasures of a vanished past.
But this false sense of a “better” past is also dangerous and often untrue, and the strength of Foote’s play and this production lie in how they refute this nostalgic past even whilst openly embracing it. “Harrison is not a very nice place,” Annie repeats throughout the show, recalling the grisly details of her father’s cold-blooded murder in their “idyllic” small town, while Vonnie watches as one fateful train ride causes her marriage to crumble. All three are trapped inside a patriarchal system that ties their marriages to their sense of self-worth. And Foote doesn’t shy away from the darkest consequences of this system, as Annie finds herself thrown into a mental institution by her husband, who subsequently divorces her without Annie even being aware of what’s going on.
By balancing these tragic blows with simple comforts of the past, The Roads to Home endears with warm nostalgia even as it devastates with quiet despair. The women’s reliance on the past feels at times like a comforting delusion in the midst of turbulence and change, while the production’s evocation of a lost, simpler era gets undercut by the constant reminder that the 1920s aesthetic is a veneer for its own brand of trouble. Nostalgia, this production reminds us, is undeniably potent. But it can sometimes be nothing more than a gilded shield for the troubles that lie underneath.
The Roads to Home presents a complicated view of the past, both culturally and for the characters, but its depiction of an attractive yet problematic past doesn’t devalue the women who participate in it. The women are willing participants in this patriarchal system throughout the piece and subject to its disenfranchising whims, but they aren’t toothless victims wailing in their own despair. They’re able to find sources of strength, whether through Mabel and Vonnie defying their husbands in the face of divorce (both hypothetical and real), or Annie’s ability to find confidence and composure at the peak of her disenfranchisement, as she recalls the full extent of her imprisoned state. The confidence and grace that Brooksher has as Annie in that final scene is a far cry from the panicked and wilted demeanor of her first act persona, as she seems to rise above the men around her rather than shrink away.
Along with Foote’s words and Michael Wilson’s direction, this sense of strength is largely thanks to the excellent performances of the three lead actresses. In addition to Brooksher’s strong performance as the deeply troubled Annie, Foote’s daughter Hallie Foote and Harriet Harris both bring a good balance of affability and strong-willed intelligence to their characters, along with a quick wit that carries the production’s more light-hearted moments.
When watching this production in the aftermath of the election, of course, this fight between the lures and confines of the past took on an added poignancy. Watching Mabel, Vonnie and Annie confront their own confinement gets tough in the face of a country that, 90 years after the play’s setting, keeps the glass ceiling intact and nostalgically votes to “Make America Great Again.” As The Roads to Home shows, though, the attractive dream of a “great” past isn’t quite what it seems. Much as Mabel, Vonnie, and Annie have learned, voters hoping for a return to a simpler time will soon learn that you can never, truly, go home.