Myra rents a room for herself and her son Pete from Mr. and Mrs. Jackson in Harrison, Texas. She plays the piano for the movie house, as talking pictures have not yet been introduced. Myra’s ex-husband Gerard likes to point out that once the “talkies” come to Texas, she will be out of a job. She is trying to make a life for Pete and herself, since Gerard’s drinking forced her to move on. This was quite the progressive step in 1929 (and certainly for a Texas woman) when she might be more inclined to endure the joys of co-habitating with a drunken lout. The Jacksons have two teenage daughters, Katie Bell and Vesta, who find Myra’s job romantic and vaguely scandalous. And perhaps for early 20th Century Texas, it was. Willis is a warm, responsible young gentleman (estranged from his wife, Gladys) and he’s obviously sweet on Myra. Katie Bell has made friends with a Latino Preacher’s son named Estaquio, which is a source of some consternation for the obnoxious Vesta, and her parents.
In Talking Pictures, Texas playwright Horton Foote considers the polarization between the sophisticated, and provincial. Texas has always confused piety with Christian imperialism, not understanding why the civilized world has trouble taking them seriously. The pop culture of a medium that finds entertainment in tragedy, that dresses Al Jolson in blackface for the sake of authenticity, eludes them. Foote is meticulous in writing dialogue that is neither amplified nor especially nuanced. His characters are recognizable to any native Texan (and probably others) as he avoids camp and cliché. His tone is crucial, and understated, but not obtuse. The Jacksons are a bit thrown by the prospect of Mexicans in their midst, but Foote is careful to avoid making them virulent racists.
Though it might appear so at the outset, Talking Pictures has no heroes or villains. Gladys may be overbearing and Gerard a bit crass, but the closer we look, the easier to see they are suffering like the rest of us. Talking Pictures isn’t somber like The Young Man From Atlanta or The Traveling Lady, where the culminating pain is nearly unbearable. The characters of Talking Pictures are thrust into a world they no longer recognize, but gradually grasp that sea-change has more to do with accommodation than choice. Director Amber Devlin clearly has a light, intuitive feel for this content, and her focused, experienced cast rises to the occasion.
MainStage Irving presents Talking Pictures, playing May 19th-June 3rd, 2017. Irving Arts Center (Dupree Theatre) 3333 N MacArthur Blvd, Irving, Texas 75062. (972) 594-6104. www.irvingtheatre.org