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Theater review: 'The Traveling Lady' at the Actors Co-op

May 12, 2011 | 12:47 pm

TravelingLady Not even a bad production could obscure the gentle humor and poignancy of “The Traveling Lady,” Horton Foote’s 1954 portrait of small-town Texans bearing up as best they can under assorted heartaches. But the Actors Co-op’s West Coast premiere of a new version (Foote revised it, with Marion Castleberry, before his death), is so well done that you might even forget you’re watching a play.

At Crossley Terrace Theatre, director Linda Kerns has calibrated every element in the service of her persuasive vision: Mark Svastics’ gorgeous set, lighting designer James L. Moody’s faithful evocation of different times of day, and Vicki Conrad's exquisite costumes. (That little sailor frock! The sleeveless green-and-white checked dress! I'd totally get in line for collectible “Traveling Lady” dolls with two outfits and a straw hat each.)

The basic story hasn’t changed: Georgette Thomas (Tara Battani) travels to Harrison, Texas, where her husband, Henry, is about to be released from the penitentiary. Their little girl, Margaret Rose (Michaela Rose Haas), has never met her daddy, but Georgette has raised her on stories of the carefree charmer who sang “New San Antonio Rose” (before he took up drinking and stabbing people).

Maybe no man could live up to this myth, but the weak, hapless Henry (J. Scott Shonka) conclusively shatters it.

The beautifully drawn locals who witness Georgette’s disenchantment provide a rich feast for actors, and this cast bites into it with gusto. Real-life mother and daughter Brenda Ballard and Rebecca Hayes reprise their roles as the addled, mutinous Mrs. Mavis and her long-suffering daughter, Sitter, from a production in 1990. In my view they might as well reprise them forever (and get a spinoff).

Lori Berg makes a delightfully sanctimonious Mrs. Tillman, the self-appointed town reformer. David Atkinson is so dreamy as Slim, the undemonstrative good guy with a susceptible heart, that you don’t blink an eye when Georgette entrusts her future to him. Shonka emphasizes Henry’s failings (as does the text) over his charm, and his singing doesn’t live up to the hype. But the look in Georgette’s eyes when she remembers their first meeting suggests how irresistible he used to be. The lovely Battani (she's really from Texas) makes this role, famously originated by Kim Stanley, her own.

The only challenge for the audience is to resist gobbling up the pigtailed 9-year-old Haas, whose personality and presence turn a perfunctorily written character (If only all kids could be sent to climb trees whenever they impeded the narrative!) into a real child. If I can’t have her I’ll take the doll. Are you listening, Madame Alexander?

 -- Margaret Gray 

“The Traveling Lady.” Actors Co-op at Crossley Terrace Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $30. Ends June 12. Contact: (323) 462-8460 or Running time: 90 minutes.

Photo: Tara Battani, left, and Michaela Rose Haas in "The Traveling Lady." Credit: Greg Bell