FOXFIREBook and Lyrics by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn
Music by Jonathan Holtzman
Director – Emily Scott Banks
Assistant Director – Gretchen Hahn
Scenic Design – Jeffrey Schmidt
Costume Design – Amy Poe
Lighting Design – Amanda West
Sound Design – Jake Nice
Annie Nations – Elly Lindsay
Hector Nations – John S. Davies
Prince Carpenter – Mark Quach
Holly Burrell – Whitney Coulter
Dillard Nations – Ian Ferguson
Doctor – Stan Graner
Reviewed Performance: 3/18/2019
Reviewed by Carol St George, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The 1980 play Foxfire, by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, resonates for a modern audience much as the books did and still do. A meditation on the compulsion to cling to tradition the way foxfire (the bioluminescent fungus also called fairy fire or will-o-the-wisp) feeds on rotting wood, Foxfire is being staged at Theatre Three, and on opening night, the audience basked in its glow.
It would be hard to find any fault with this production. Every cast member from the leads to the supporting players turned in authentic performances. The witty script handily delivered by the pros on stage, the timeless story gracefully told, and the warmth radiating from empathetic characters all work to draw us into the homespun ambiance of an Appalachian farm, spiked with the tension of a family’s complex dynamic.
It’s the story of Annie Nations, played by Ellie Lindsay, a widow whose grown children have moved on and whose dead husband refuses to rest in peace, much less leave her in peace. She’s doing just fine, thank you. But her country-singer son Dillard (Ian Ferguson) wants her to move into his home in Florida. He’s got his own problems, notably a wife who’s run off with another man, but his chief concern is for Annie, facing the unavoidable dangers of aging alone on the farm.
Ellie Lindsay’s Annie, as stubborn as she is sweet, isn’t going anywhere soon. Lindsay strikes a delicate balance of vulnerability and strength as Annie. In one of the flashbacks of pivotal moments in family history, she bears childbirth with stoic resolve. She also fends off a hungry real estate developer with Southern charm and iron will. At the same time, it’s clear she’s lived under the overbearing shadow of her opinionated, Bible-spouting husband Hector (John S. Davies), a man whose voice and vivid presence she can’t escape and doesn’t bother trying to. There’s comfort in staying glued to the past, even if there’s a suppressed longing to do as her children have done and move on. Lindsay’s deeply rooted to Annie’s story, and it shows in every gesture.
John S. Davies as Hector is even bigger than life on stage than he is in Annie’s mind. His Hector is a pig-headed farmer with no patience for modern ideas. One of those Bible-thumping blowhards that can clear the joy out of a room in a single breath, characters like him are not hard to find in the South, and Davies seems well acquainted with the type. Blessed with some of the most outrageous and funny pronouncements, he makes Hector, with his unbelievable worldview, believable. He could be a deep-fried televangelist in a different story. In this story, he conjures up a hilarious if horrific character and undoubtedly enjoys the role.
The character of Dillard fits Ian Ferguson like an old pair of boots. He’s the son whose heart is not in the farm or his father’s ways, and Ferguson telegraphs the weariness in Dillard’s bones from years of butting heads with the old man. Having moved away, he’s still haunted by his dad, still worries about his mother, and despite following his dream he isn’t quite living it. Ferguson also voices Dillard’s disillusionment through song, and his easy vocals and acoustic guitar provide a soulful soundtrack to the story’s emotional arc.
The supporting actors admirably personify their characters. Whitney Coulter is endearing as Holly Burrell, the friendly local girl who has blossomed where she’s been planted, staying in the community and becoming a schoolteacher. Stan Graner’s short appearance on stage as the Doctor who delivers Dillard is the essence of small-town, folksy wisdom. Even Mark Quach, whose Prince Carpenter could have been a caricature of the evil land developer infuses his role with humanity. He’s smarmy but not deplorable. A product of changing times. As he says, “We all gotta move on, like firefox on a dead log.”
Director Emily Scott Banks gives her actors the freedom to move, speak, and interact like living people, which is what makes them, and live theater, so appealing.
Jeffrey Schmidt’s scenic design recreates the Nations’ log cabin and slices of farm scenes with impastoed paintings and a few set pieces, which are enough to suggest time and place, but might have benefited from a mountain backdrop. Given the limitations of the space, that might be asking too much. Amanda West’s lighting and Jake Nice’s sound design captured the look and feel of a rural homestead. And the characters were well defined by Amy Poe’s costumes.
When Foxfire ran on Broadway from 1982-83 it earned Jessica Tandy a Tony, among other awards. It was the perfect vehicle for Tandy and Cronyn, one of the best married acting teams of the last century. It was worth seeing for those two alone, especially Tandy. But not all critics were fans of the play itself. It was deemed a predictable, threadbare story to some. Perhaps it still is. But in the hands of Theatre Three, it’s a story that successfully avoids sentimentality and delivers an unapologetic look at the traditions and conflicts that bind us all, the people and places that won’t let us go. I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s worth a couple of hours to watch some accomplished actors at the top of their game. They’re right at home with the material, and it’s nice to be invited in.
2800 Routh Street, #168, Dallas, TX 75201
Runs through April 7, 2019
Tickets: Call 214-871-3300 or visit https://tickets.theatre3dallas.com