By Mike Giuliano
6:10 AM EDT, September 20, 2013
Horton Foote crafted gentle dramas about ordinary lives. The late playwright's "A Young Lady of Property," which opens the Rep Stage season, is set in a Texas town in 1925. Although it's such an insular place that it seems unlikely the small-town gossip would even travel as far as the next town, Foote taps into dreams and disappointments that have universal application.
A prolific writer whose plays included "The Trip to Bountiful" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Young Man From Atlanta," Foote also won Academy Awards for his adapted screenplay for "To Kill a Mockingbird" and original screenplay for "Tender Mercies."
Originally a 1953 teleplay, "A Young Lady of Property" is now often done as a stage play. Its TV origins can be sensed in its intermissionless 90-minute length, and also in the self-contained narrative tracking several principal characters within a modest domestic setting.
The Rep Stage production directed by Michael Stebbins brings out this play's homespun virtues, and it's especially good at showcasing a teenaged protagonist whose aspirations reach all the way to Hollywood.
Wilma Thompson (Christine Demuth) is a 15-year-old girl mourning the death of her mother. It's of great emotional comfort to her that her mother's will left her the family house. The story generates a satisfying amount of melodramatic intrigue in terms of whether young Wilma's legal claim to the house will be challenged by her father, Lester Thompson (Tony Tsendeas), who is rather cold toward her. Lester, who seems immune to mourning and addicted to gambling, plans to marry Sibyl Leighton (Marianne Angelella).
These dramatic plot developments prompt enough gossip to keep the conversation jumping around a dinner table and out on a backyard swing. Wilma confides in her best friend, Arabella (Kathryn Zoerb), who is such a good listener that she hardly ever says anything. Arabella and Wilma have sent in their applications to a Hollywood talent contest being held in Houston, ardently hoping they can become silent screen stars. Wilma also confides in her very supportive aunt, Gertrude Miller (Yvonne Erickson).
Other town characters who register opinions are played by a capable cast including Marilyn Bennett, Erica Lauren McLaughlin, and Tsendeas in two additional minor roles.
Everybody either knows or would like to know your business in such a tiny town, and that makes it mildly engaging to listen to all of the gossip delivered with a Texas twang. Foote's writing style is deceptively leisurely, because this daily chatter escalates into the occasional outburst.
The play's stylistic approach is neatly embodied in Christine Demuth's performance as Wilma. Demuth shows how this talkative young woman is sad about her present circumstances and yet hopeful of a Hollywood future. That screen dream is not likely to come true, of course, and so Wilma is in for an emotional workout as she grapples with whether to stay in town or pack her suitcase and go. Although Demuth obviously is older than 15, she admirably conveys Wilma's youthful nervous energy.
This production also does Foote's play justice in its nostalgic evocation of an earlier time in American life. The sets by Greggory Schraven, costumes by Kristina Lambdin, props by Vicki Sussman, sound by Ann Warren and lighting by Terry Cobb are not overly detailed or fancy, but their very spareness places the emphasis on characters aching to express themselves.
If this heartfelt play never entirely evolves into something more compelling, it's partly because Foote's basic thematic points tend to be repeated too often; and it's also partly because supporting characters such as Wilma's father and his fiancee are so thinly written that they barely exist as characters.
Thank goodness Wilma is such a determined young woman. She ensures that you'll want to stick around and watch her grow up.
"A Young Lady of Property" runs through Sept. 29 at Rep Stage, at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $31- $40; student tickets are $15. Call 443-518-1500 or go to repstage.org.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun