Old Friends, New Beginning: What’s A-Foote at Signature Theater? Betty Buckley—in a Nonsinging Role!

Buckley in 'The Old Friends.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Buckley in ‘The Old Friends.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Betty Buckley is charging onto the Irene Diamond Stage of the Pershing Square Signature Center these days with such commanding authority you fully expect her first line to be “Memory/All alone in the moonlight/I can smile at the old days/I was beautiful then,” as it was in Cats. But it’s not. It’s a drink order, one of many she makes over the course of Horton Foote’s The Old Friends.

It is her strongest theatrical showing in years, and she brings it off without a note to her name. She plays Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, the newly widowed, booze-fueled queen bee of Harrison, Texas. Historically, Gertrude always got what she wanted by throwing her moneybags around, and what she wants when the play begins is Howard Ratliff (Cotter Smith), her estate manager, escort, lover and brother-in-law.

Her desire is derailed by the arrival of Sybil Borden (Hallie Foote), an old flame of Howard and even more newly widowed. Have another drink, Gertrude. She downs four fast ones in the first scene before departing for—wait for it—a cocktail party.

Her one sustained scene of sobriety in the play occurs at the top of the second act, in which, hungover and weepy, she has summoned her old friends to her bedside to issue the terms of their surrender only to learn money can’t buy her love.

“Her father raised her thinking, as the richest girl in town, she could have anything she wanted,” Ms. Buckley said of her character in a recent interview. “He was a bully. He manipulated people with his money, and she followed his lead.”

Evidently, that was the way they did things in Harrison. In Mr. Foote’s first Broadway play, 1944’s Only the Heart, Mamie Gordon (June Walker) was the rich bitch-in-residence, controlling daughter Julia (Eleanor Anton) and son-in-law Albert (Will Hare) with her cash flow. Twenty years later, when these three show up in The Old Friends (played by Lois Smith, Veanne Cox and Adam LeFevre), the tables have turned. Not only is Miss Mamie a cowed widow, she seems to be the only teetotaler in town (a distinction that doesn’t quite make it to the finish line). “Growing up, I think that Miss Mamie was probably one of my idols, because she was such a powerful person,” Ms. Buckley reckoned.

The best-known reference for self-absorbed, single-purpose, Southern-style string-pulling is the ruthless Regina Gibbens that Lillian Hellman created for The Little Foxes. Gertrude aspires to be something on that order, only scaled down to small-town Texas size. The dear hearts and gentle people that generally populate the plays of Horton Foote are not to be found here. As director Michael Wilson informed his cast early in rehearsal, “This is not your grandmother’s Horton Foote.”

The only other example of hard-drinking, unruly Harrisonites in Mr. Foote’s canon is The Chase, which reached the screen in 1966 and was a monumental flop—and a lifelong embarrassment for the playwright.

“It was a play first and then a novel, and [Lillian] Hellman announced she was going to use my novel as a departure,” Mr. Foote once told me. “Indeed, she departed so far away that I couldn’t do anything with it. I don’t know all the studio politics of it, but Sam Spiegel asked me to come in for the last three weeks and do a kind of polish on the screenplay. It was a little bit like Moses and his mother when they asked her to be the servant girl. By then, it was too far gone. I know people went just to hoot at it.”

Mr. Foote countered his artistic disappointment by starting to write The Old Friends. “This play, in particular, strikes me as an exploration of chaos,” his daughter Hallie said of The Old Friends. “I love that he did it and that he did it in the ’60s when he was not in vogue in New York. It reminds me of an Edward Albee-type play. It’s so timely—and with time—from the ‘60s through now. I’m in awe of what he did.”

In fact, this “new” Foote premieres Sept. 12 in place of the new Albee, which the author snatched back from Signature for additional tinkering. In the early 2000s, The Old Friends had a couple of two-week exploratory stagings at Signature and Lincoln Center. Ms. Buckley and Ms. Foote did the Signature reading 11 years ago.

“After that particular reading,” Mr. Wilson remembered, “Horton did a fairly significant rewrite in which he telescoped the play. I think that he made it more modern. He chose to make things less resolved. In his earlier drafts, he tended to answer more questions and spell it out more for the audience. In this version, he left it up to the audience’s imagination as to what happened to these characters.”

The Old Friends returns Ms. Buckley to the theatrical frontlines and shows how she can still deliver the goods in roles of sass and substance. Her last local appearance—as Peter Scolari’s marriage-pushing mom in a rumored comedy at New World Stages called White’s Lies—was less than that.

Prior to this, she didn’t stray from Broadway, save for a London Promises, Promises. Either it was a too-brief Triumph of Love or replacing Tony-winning performances (Glenn Close’s in Sunset Boulevard and Bernadette Peters’s in Song and Dance) or originating her own (the title role in Drood and her Tony-winning Grizabella in Cats). Her nadir last year was famous: Carrie’s mom (she had film-debuted in 1976 as Carrie’s teacher).

Suffering from bright-light-itis, she beat a path home. Her ranch, an hour’s ride from Fort Worth, Texas, is a veritable animal farm, replete with cats, dogs, horses and a donkey named Rosie O’Donkey. But from there, she can still field the occasional film (The Happening) or TV guest-shot (The Pacific) and book an active concert life. For a decade, she made yearly sojourns to the late Feinstein’s at the Regency. Earlier this year, she did a London revival of Jerry Herman’s Dear World and hopes to do it here.

“When I moved back to Texas 10 years ago, I kinda put myself between a rock and a hard place in terms of coming in at the drop of a hat and doing something in a not-for-profit situation,” Ms. Buckley said. “So, when Michael called about The Old Friends, I was, like, ‘Yes. I’m in.’ I cleared my schedule of the concerts and workshops I’d booked and came.”

Mr. Foote had written her best film role: Dixie Scott in 1983’s Tender Mercies, an angry-drunk, country-music diva divorced from a down-and-out Robert Duvall. Small but potent, the part ran only 10 or 12 minutes, and much went to wailing (and winning with) the heart-breaking “Over You.” Mr. Duvall and Mr. Foote both won Oscars, and “Over You” was nominated for Best Song.

There’s more than a wailing echo of Dixie in Gertrude. Both have epic crying-jags on vast, sprawling beds. Both are in love with men they will never land. And both imbibe John Barleycorn to self-destructive excess.

“I just love Horton’s work,” Ms. Buckley said. “One of the creative highs of my life was playing Dixie Scott. I remember when I got that script. Fred Roos, a producer for Francis Coppola, as well as a casting director, saw me in Getting My Act Together in New York and said, ‘Now, you’re one of my actresses, and I’m going to make sure you work in films.’ They called him about Tender Mercies. He said, ‘I gave them one name. Now, go get that part.’ So I went in and met Bruce Beresford, the director. He said, ‘Well, can you act?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Can you sing?’ I said, ‘Yes—and I’m from Texas, too.’ He said, ‘Well, you want to do it?’ It was the easiest audition I ever had.”