(L-R) Betty Buckley as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, Cotter Smith as Howard Ratliff and Veanne Cox as Julia Price in the Alley Theatre’s production of The Old Friends.

Image: John Everett

The Old Friends
Thru Sept 7
$26–80
Wortham Theatre
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts
University of Houston
209 CWM Center
713-220-5700
alleytheatre.org

Every Texas family contains someone like Gertrude, by which I mean a heavyset woman of a certain age (no one knows exactly what that is, and no one dares ask), with a blunt manner and a sharp tongue, especially on those regrettable occasions when she drinks, which is regrettably often. Hardly a reunion or holiday goes by that isn’t somehow disrupted by her drunken allegations, sometimes accusatory, sometimes self-loathing, and always producing the same effect in her audience—a cross-generational collective cringe.

As I say, Gertrudes are part of our heritage, one of the unavoidable hazards of life here, along with hurricanes, mosquitos, and fast food joints with double drive-thrus. Still, there are Gertrudes and then there is Gertrude, the moneyed, obnoxious heiress at the white-hot center of The Old Friends, Horton Foote’s absorbing dramedy. She is quite simply the Gertrude by which all others must be measured, especially in the hands of veteran Broadway actress Betty Buckley, who brings to the role soul-shattering violence, but also lightning-quick shifts from amusing to terrifying and then back again. There are reflexes that take longer.

(L-R) Cotter Smith as Howard Ratliff, Betty Buckley as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff and Jay Sullivan as Tom Underwood in the Alley Theatre’s production of The Old Friends.

Image: John Everett

This is not the soft stepmother-y Betty Buckley of Eight is Enough, nor the rueful “Memory”-singing, Grizabella-y Betty Buckley of Cats. Like the character for which she won a Tony award, Gertrude is almost certainly an old feline in desperate need of rebirth. But the stale, cold smell of morning has nothing on the lonely sunrises of Foote’s fictional Harrison, Texas, a place where streetlamps don’t just die at night, they’re murdered. And no one conveys this better than Buckley, whose performance—whether flirting clumsily with a man half her age or barreling soused through a ranch-style living room circa 1960—boils Gertrude’s bones down to a marrow both delicious and pungent. 

But most everyone in the cast of the Alley’s production of The Old Friends—which opens the company’s season-long sabbatical at UH’s Wortham Theatre—finds their characters’ unique centers of pleasure and pain, most notably Veanne Cox, whose Julia appears to be a slightly younger and slightly less clumsy Gertrude. But Julia shares with her a desperate need to flee her aging self, and—also like Gertrude—solicits a handsome young arrival in town, Tom (Jay Sullivan), for the purpose. Ergo, fireworks. Like Buckley’s, Cox’s performance is fantastically nuanced; she’s somehow able to mine her role for all its comedy without ever once slipping into camp, an ever-present danger in Footeville. If the play loses some steam when either Buckley or Cox is offstage, it more than makes up for it during the moments they’re battling each other on the boards, arguing over everything from who’s richer to who’s the more indecent to who will get first crack at Tom. 

The plight of wealthy idle women in towns outside of Houston can certainly be a compelling theatrical subject—both then and potentially now—although some of the situations Foote’s characters find themselves in get less of a rise out of contemporary audiences, many of whom may not easily empathize with this world of Mamie and Asa and Hugo and Sibyl (this last given a wise rendering here by the playwright’s daughter, Hallie Foote), where a party’s chief entertainment comes from playing bossa nova music on a record player and the value of sprawling estates hinges on the price of pecans. But this is a play Foote began in the ’60s, and perhaps thankfully so, as there is a gothic, almost existential absurdity to The Old Friends that I wish had made its way into some of his other works, along with a sense of danger in boozy evenings that other playwrights of the era explored to great effect (see Albee, Williams).

It is also the sort of play where a spoiler happens before even a half-hour has passed, which is why I am prohibited from giving much of a plot synopsis. Then again, all you really need to know is that two big ole Texas families live in close proximity. As any family with a Gertrude could tell you, every plotline spun from such a set-up is bound to be highly dramatic and entertainingly ridiculous, and happily this play is no exception.

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