The "old friends" who populate Horton Foote's play of that name have a long and spiteful history, and the lively, gripping, and often funny production that arrived at the Signature Theater Thursday night under Michael Wilson's sharp direction only confirms the old cynicism that with friends like these who needs enemies.
The Old Friends is a sequel of sorts to an earlier Foote play called Only the Heart, first produced in 1942 at the Provincetown Playhouse and, two years later, on Broadway. When Foote first revisited some of those same characters 20 years later, he expanded the circle of families bearing old grudges and moved them from Richmond to Harrison, the two Texas towns that are the settings for most of his plays, in 1965.
The main antagonists in The Old Friends are new characters, Sybil Borden and Gertrude Ratliff, girlhood chums whose friendship frayed when Gertrude's father cheated Sybil's in a business deal, and was left in tatters over Howard Ratliff, a boy they both loved. Gertrude ended up marrying Howard's older brother, a landowner who became the richest man in town. Sybil, once Howard's fiancée, married Hugo Borden and has spent the intervening years living in Mexico and Venezuela while her husband tried his luck wildcatting oil.
At the outset of the play, both husbands are dead and Sybil is returning to Harrison, penniless, to find that Gertrude now employs Howard as manager of her farms and keeps him on a short leash. The holdovers are Mamie Borden, a domineering matriarch in Only the Heart and now an elderly woman living on the sufferance of her daughter, Julia, and Albert Price, the man she forced Julia to marry in the earlier play.
Foote tinkered with The Old Friends for decades. A workshop was staged at H-B Studios in 1982 and Foote revised it again after a reading at Signature Theater in 2002. The version now on stage there is the first full production since he wrote the original nearly 50 years ago. There are echoes of Tennessee Williams in Foote's tale of squabbling families trying to hide the generations-old familial jealousies behind a veneer of booze and sex and one senses at the final curtain they will never be laid to rest.
Hallie Foote and Betty Buckley are simply brilliant as the warring Sybil and Gertrude. They enter the stage with knives drawn and honed like razors and they parry each other's thrusts with the finesse of veteran street fighters, albeit with vastly different maneuvers. Gertrude tosses her wealth around like confetti at New Year's Eve and makes Howard jump at her every command. Sybil presents a stoic front that is immune to Gertrude's brashness, which only enrages her "old friend" even more.
Like any Foote play, there are further complications. Julia, who has a bankroll of her own, also has her hooks into Howard to the possibly violent consternation of Albert. And the arrival of Tom Underwood, a young go-getter from out of town, turns the sexual triangle into a quadrangle.
Gertrude and Julia are 1960's prototypes of the modern-day cougar. Each drinks like a sailor on shore leave and is convinced money can buy anything or anyone. When Sybil is forced to sell the last of her jewelry, Gertrude offers to pay more than it's worth provided Sybil will leave town. When Sybil turns her down, Julia counters with an offer to give her the house she is forcing her to rent.
An all-round excellent cast brings each of the characters into focus. Veanne Cox as Julia is slithery as a seductress who will stop at nothing to bed her man, provided the vodka keeps flowing. The estimable Lois Smith is a study in pathos as Mamie Borden, and Cotter Smith is convincing as Howard, a weakling playboy suddenly finding manly fortitude. And Adam LeFevre delivers a fine turn as Julia's apathetic and pickled husband, Albert.
Deep wounds always leave scars, and no one knows it better than Horton Foote. At one point, as Sybil tells Howard about her life abroad, she quotes from Pablo Neruda, one of Foote's favorite poets: "Where does the grief go?" In Foote's Harrison, Tex., it can well turn into bile.