A Coffin in Egypt, one of Horton Foote’s lesser known scripts, has one of the most unengaging titles imaginable, (it’s actually derived from the last line in Genesis). Get past the title, trust Quotidian, Horton Foote and Jane Squier Bruns and you’ll be in for a treat.
Myrtle Bledsoe, a ninety year old Texas widow, recalls her life while talking to her friend, a female companion sitting nearby, who silently reads or crochets but is present with care and attentiveness, nicely played by E. Lynda Bruce. Bledsoe is dressed to the hilt in a stunning garnet velvet dress, pleated at the waist so that it cascades in a regal flow, accented with strings of pearls. She’s a woman of means and she carries that recognition effortlessly in how she moves and touches her beads as if they were of little consequence. She starts off with surface remarks about her day but it’s the gospel singing outside that initiates the deep dig into the key aspects of her life and being.
As much as I tried to prepare myself for the opening passage, it was still uncomfortable hearing the character Myrtle Bledsoe’s disparaging reflections on the “Negroes” around her. But I had peeked into the script so I knew if I held on, there would be juicy tidbits to enjoy, so I gripped my seat and stayed for the ride. Plus, I knew I could trust Quotidian to provide a caring and respectful touch in their depictions. From the very beginning I was comforted by the sound track of the gospel song “Way Back in Egypt Land” and the first and last projected image of a gathering of black church goers in their white Sunday attire. I was safe, I was home.
A Coffin in Egypt
closes December 16, 2017
Details and tickets
What starts of as off-putting pejorative remarks comes from a deeper place of hurt and resentment. That’s apparent with the projection of Maude Jenkins, who she describes as a “beautiful mulatto” field hand that her husband Hunter had taken up with. Oh, Really? Well, okay, we’re in juicy dish territory now. Bledsoe candidly describes that ongoing relationship, recalls her husband’s fondness and appreciation for “colored women,” and how he openly admitted his love for Jenkins and subsequent others. It got to the point that Bledsoe left the country with her two daughters to escape the small town gossip and humiliation. She traveled across Europe, met and was courted by several potential suitors, including a dark-complexioned “Sheikh” who, since he was African “…did perhaps have some colored blood somewhere down the line, as they say.”
See what I mean? Stick around a bit and Foote will tell it all.
In full disclosure, I’ve been a fan of Bruns for years having seen her in The Dead and admired her portrayal of Carrie Watts in Foote’s The Trip To Bountiful last season. I relished each moment I shared with her on stage this summer in Night Seasons where I saw first hand her approach to a phrase, a pause, a reflection, and she does not disappoint here. Bruns is radiant as Bledsoe. What she can do with a glance, a reflective look, a flutter of the hands is gorgeous artistry—it’s old school the likes of which you don’t have much chance to witness anymore.
This production is solidly anchored in the fundamentals of human perseverance to survive. Bruns relays her character’s most emotionally jarring moments as benign events although you can sense the undercurrent of severe disappointment. Directed by Jack Sbarbori, the passages ebb and flow as Bledsoe angrily recalls tempestuous moments, then eases into quiet reflection, accepting it all, including the deaths of her daughters with an amazing grace and balance without bitterness, malice or regret.
Foote has a way of exposing the human condition through the constantly shifting memories and reflections of his characters. In one sweet passage, the widow wonders if she hated or loved her philandering husband. There are losses, murders, addictions, betrayals, and mental imbalance in the families and efforts to deal with all the disappointments and messiness. As Bledsoe’s memories fade in and out, as she reflects on her life, we sense her leaning forward to the next day rather than stumbling backwards into regret or futility. That’s the magic of Foote and the expertise of Quotidian’s interpretation on display.
The backwall set design by Sbarbori is a classic black and gold brocade with gold chairs, curtains and flooring, all reflect an elegant lived in opulence. The overall display and descriptions of wealth contrasted with the emotional squalor in Bledsoe’s life where the tenant workers just a generation out of slavery could likely be more content.
Celebrating its twentieth season, Quotidian is known for quiet productions that reflect the simple everyday moments of life. The company is also a premiere interpreter of Horton Foote with Sbarbori’s historical and personal connections to the playwright and his legacy. The arrangement for a talk back Saturday night with Gerald C. Wood and Bruns was a special treat. Wood is a distinguished professor of English Emeritus and former director of the Horton Foote Center at Carson-Newman College, edited a casebook on Foote and a collection of the writer’s one-act plays, published Horton Foote and the Theater of Intimacy, and is vice-president of the Horton Foote Society. He put the play and characters in perspective as part of the Horton Foote canon, as wounded with emotional frailties and vulnerabilities, while also noting their courage to survive and sometimes even care.
Wood’s praise about the quality of the production A Coffin in Egypt and the unique Quotidian experience reinforced the treasure ensconced at the Writer’s Center. Set in Egypt, Texas in 1968, the show is a tour-de-force performance with timely messages that still speak to us and the human condition today.
A Coffin in Egypt by Horton Foot . Directed by Jack Sbarbori . Cast: Jane Squire Bruns and E. Lynda Bruce . Set, Property and Costume Design: Jack Sbarbori . Lighting Design: Don Slater . Lighting, Sound, Projection Technician: Matthew Datcher . Stage Manager: E. Lynda Bruce . Produced by Quotidian Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.