Hallie Foote tackles her father's work and legacy

Associated Press
This theater image released by Keith Sherman and Associates, Andrea Lynn Green, left, and Hallie Foote are shown in a scene from " Harrison, TX" a bundle of three one-act plays; "Blind Date," "The One-Armed Man" and "The Midnight Caller", that will play until September at 59E59 Theaters in New York. (AP Photo/Keith Sherman and Associates, James Leynse)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Hallie Foote has every reason to be happy these days: She's acting in her father's work again and doing so alongside her husband. And she's excited to next get to tackle the world premiere of her younger sister's newest play.

And yet there's something absent: her father, the late, great Horton Foote.

"I really miss him because he would be so happy to be here," the 62-year-old actress said recently at a Primary Stages rehearsal hall. "He was so involved that it feels like there's a piece of this equation that's missing now."

Hallie Foote is playing two roles in "Harrison, TX," a bundle of three of her father's one-act plays — "Blind Date," ''The One-Armed Man" and "The Midnight Caller" — that will play until September at 59E59 Theaters. Pam MacKinnon, who was nominated for a Tony Award for directing "Clybourne Park," helms the production, which also stars Jayne Houdyshell.

Horton Foote died three years ago at age 92. For more than six decades, he spun down-home tales inspired by the characters he met and heard about while growing up in Wharton, Texas, the town where he set many of his plays, under the pseudonym "Harrison." He was hailed as an American Chekhov and earned two Academy Awards and a 1995 Pulitzer Prize.

Hallie Foote, the eldest of four Foote children, has made something of a career interpreting her father's work. She now finds herself answering questions from her fellow actors about her father's intent.

"I get sad sometimes because I think, 'I don't know the answer to this,' and if he was here he'd have an answer. That's the part that makes it different," she says. "It's not that it's more or less pressure. I never felt pressure working with him."

Hallie Foote long ago lost track of how many of her father's plays she's appeared in on the stage or in film, including "The Trip to Bountiful," ''The Carpetbagger's Children" and "The Last of the Thorntons." She makes it a family affair when her husband, Devon Abner, joins.

Her turn in his "Dividing the Estate" earned her a Tony nomination in 2009, and she won a 2010 Drama Desk Special Award for her work in her father's "The Orphans' Home Cycle," a nine-hour saga of one man's journey to adulthood.

Houdyshell, fresh off her Tony-nominated turn in Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," says she occasionally finds herself asking Hallie Foote what her father would make of certain things.

"Needless the say, she has such a deep understanding of what these plays are, who these people are and the place that they come from. So it's lovely and inspiring to have her in the rehearsal room," she says.

Houdyshell is attempting her first Foote play, "The Midnight Caller," a play in which a visitor upsets the rhythms of a boarding house. She calls Horton Foote a deceptively simple writer.

"He captures ordinary people in seemingly ordinary lives doing and thinking extraordinary things," says Houdyshell, who grew up in rural Kansas and sees connections to it in Foote's Texas. "It's a very real world."

It has fallen to MacKinnon to stitch together the three plays — written and set in different times. The fact that they all happen in the same town is helpful, and she's noticed that the same cotton mill appears in all three.

"I think with any great artist — and Horton Foote is certainly that — there are some obsessive themes that he keeps picking at throughout his entire writing career," says MacKinnon. "So those will pop forward."

The director, who often works on new plays and is used to having the writer nearby, adds that she also relies on Hallie Foote's opinion. "I do lean on her because I know that she has swum in these waters. So why not?"

New waters await in September when Hallie Foote stars in Primary Stages' world premiere of her sister's new play, "Him," a play about siblings struggling to keep their family store afloat in an era of big box outlets.

Playwright Daisy Foote, nine years younger than Hallie, often concentrates on life in her native New Hampshire — her father always advised her to write about what she knows — and her sister sees parallels with their father.

"Her writing is similar to his. There's a simplicity and straightforwardness," says Hallie Foote. "She has an understanding of characters that he did. It wasn't that he taught her, necessarily. But I think, somehow genetically, she got some of his sensibilities."

Daisy Foote, whose other plays include "Bhutan" and "When They Speak of Rita," knows that her last name opens doors, but is well aware that it also prompts comparisons.

"There's some pressure, I suppose. But people have been very kind about it. And, believe me, I've had my own struggles and tried to cut my own path," she says. "But I really feel like I've made my own way with it."

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Online:

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