Valley Players ‘Old Friends’: Go see this play
Napa Valley Register Review,, July 11, 2018
Go see this play. You’ll be glad you did.
It’s called “The Old Friends,” by Horton Foote, and it is a dramatic potboiler filled with adultery, money and marital strife, all submerged in a sea of alcohol. The play is virtually a river of cocktails, fueling alcoholic rages and general misanthropy that will make even a teetotaler want to go to an AA meeting.
The Valley Players perform it for one more weekend at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville.
In less capable hands, this would have been a mess. But the cast assembled by the Valley Players pulls it off with a such a dedicated and convincing focus that what you’re left with in the end is a complete catharsis, worthy of any serious theatergoer this side of San Francisco.
The play centers on a group of people in a small town in Texas, near Houston. Mamie, a Southern belle of a certain age, lives with daughter Julia and Julia’s husband Albert. She is tired of living with Julia — and when you get to know Julia better in the play you will see why — and plans to ask Sybil, when she gets back from Venezuela, if she can live with her.
Throw into that mix Gertrude, played by a lugubrious Rhonda Bowen, a fabulously wealthy landowner who wears her wealth on her sleeve as well as the tip of her tongue, never letting anyone forget how much money she has.
Then there’s Howard, the manager of Gertrude’s land. He’s earnest, forthright, full of integrity and the moral backbone of the play — the one guy without an ulterior motive — as well as the one guy who doesn’t pickle himself with drink.
Foote sets the play in the 1960s, a decade I’ve only experienced through movies and TV. If this play is any indication, the fuel the 1960s ran on was gin, vodka and bourbon, which lends an explosive, unpredictable and irrational tone to the whole undertaking.
As I write this, I realize I am painting a very bleak picture. And, it’s true, alcoholism is bleak. But what is not bleak is the shining, jewel bright dedication these actors put into their performances.
June Alane Reif’s Julia is irascible and spoiled, and you will not like the way she asserts herself, passing judgment over all concerned — the provocation of distaste being a sign of any successful performance.
Rhonda’s Gertrude, who gets the pleasure of having a complete alcoholic temper tantrum in the second act, you pity for her loneliness, but you realize she is lonely only because of her own selfish ways.
Debbie Baumann, who plays the demure Sybil, you find at first shy and submissive. Indeed, she is put at a disadvantage as, right at the beginning of the play, she is widowed. But by the end, you see that she is a sober example of peace, rationality and grace, despite the turbulent group around her.
And I shouldn’t forget Joseph Pharr’s Tom Underwood, a fine young man who ends up being torn between the affections of both Julia and Gertrude. He exudes the necessary innocence as the attention he gets from two older, rich women goes straight to his head. You may remember Joseph from the starring role in Jennifer King’s transcendent, inspired production of Shakespeare’s “Pericles” last summer at Napa Valley College.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the sets. There are three different places that need to be represented, two of which require a wall with a door right down the middle of the stage. I felt a little guilty about the work and cost of their construction, but it shows that the Valley Players want to put on a show with substance.
On this night, there were only 30 people in the audience, making the Lincoln Theater feel even more cavernous than it already is. It’s such a shame that theater of this quality doesn’t have more of an audience. And so, I said it once at the beginning of this piece, and I say it again now: GO SEE THIS PLAY. It’s ambitious, well produced, serious theater whose risk needs to be rewarded by a paying, appreciative audience.