B. and I saw “Talking Pictures” by Horton Foote, at the Goodman last Saturday.  We both liked it, though B. thought it was somewhat “fluffy.”

It’s set in 1929 in a small town in Texas.  The main character, Myra, plays piano for the local movie theater.  “Talkies” are coming to town, and she’s afraid she’ll lose her job.

She lives with her 14-year old son in a rented room in a house.  She’s divorced.  The house is owned by a middle-class family.  The father is a railroad engineer, the mother takes care of the home, and there are two teenaged daughters.  Myra has a warm relationship with the family, but from a polite distance.  Other characters include a friend/suitor who lives over the garage (Willis), Willis’s estranged wife, the estranged wife’s jealous boyfriend, Myra’s ex-husband, and, for good measure, a Mexican Baptist preacher’s son who teaches the family to sing “Rock of Ages” in Spanish.

Quick plot summary –

– Myra is worried about her job.  The dad of the family is also worried about his job – a more senior engineer has decided to “bump” him, so in turn he has to bump somebody else, and the family is going to have to move.  Willis courts Myra.  Daughters strain somewhat at the strictures of being “ladylike”, but always ultimately obey their mother.  Myra’s son comes home from a two-week visit with his dad and tells Myra he wants to go live with his dad.  Mexican Baptist preacher boy befriends the younger daughter.  Family is initially wary, but warm to him after he brings over a Spanish version of the Bible, and sings hymns in Spanish. 

– Willis courts Myra.  The family finds out that the dad isn’t going to lose his job after all – the senior engineer has changed his mind.  Willis’s wife comes by and demands Willis take her back.  Her boyfriend comes by and threatens everyone, then shoots himself in the foot.  (Literally, not figuratively.) 

– Myra loses her job. Myra’s ex-husband comes to tell their son that the son won’t be able to live with him after all, because his wife (the second wife) is against it.  Son is livid.  Second wife calls to say the ex-husband to say she’s leaving him.  Willis courts Myra.  Ex-husband meets Willis’s wife, they hit it off and run off to Mexico to get a divorce.   Myra goes to the first talking movie with Willis.  She realizes she loves Willis, and agrees to marry him. 

I really liked it, and left feeling really good.  The description on the website leads you to think the characters will be used to examine the effect of the massive changes in American culture around that time, but the play doesn’t really do that.  They’re not vehicles at all.  The play does glance at narrow-mindedness, racism, financial troubles, and so on.  But just by the by, as the characters go about living their lives. 

Myra doesn’t obsess about losing her job, though she does worry.  She talks about movies only when asked, usually by the starstruck younger daughter.  After she does lose her job, she goes to see the first “talkie” at the same movie theater she just lost the job from.  There are a couple of improbable scenes, but for the most part, action flows naturally from the characters’ inner nature.

I feel like I finally got some understanding of the traditional Southern way of life, which I’ve never ever understood at all, being very much an East Coaster.  Somehow, in this play, the elaborate politeness and lack of directness all made complete sense.  It was internally consistent.  I could see, if you believed and felt A, B, and C, you would act in X, Y, and Z way. 

In their world, politeness was incredibly important.  Politeness, in this world, was inextricably linked with kindness, and with goodness.  In New York, you can be a good, kind person but also quite blunt and even downright rude.  In the Old South of this play, that would be impossible.

There’s not really a lot to deeply analyze, because there was a lot of plot, but not really any complex structure.  The play was about feelings, and respecting other people’s feelings, and looking for the way forward in hard times.  Even when the “bad” characters act poorly, they sincerely apologize afterward, and are forgiven.  When Myra loses her job, Willis tells her his mother always told him, no matter how bad things get, don’t despair.  He repeats it – Don’t despair.  And you realize these aren’t just words – they really mean something. 

And you can’t really analyze that.  It’s either something you feel, and are moved by … or you don’t, and you’re not.