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The Alley Theatre’s Betty Buckley

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Not singing, but drinking: Betty Buckley appeared off-Broadway last year in The Old Friends (pictured) and heads to Houston to reprise her role for the Alley Theatre.
Not singing, but drinking: Betty Buckley appeared off-Broadway last year in The Old Friends (pictured) and heads to Houston to reprise her role for the Alley Theatre.

by Donalevan Maines
Photo by Joan Marcus

Here’s to the ladies who lunch—not only did we lose Elaine Stritch last month, but now Betty Buckley’s in town to skewer wealthy Texas women who drink too much.

Her role as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff sounds like something La Stritch might have played in a Stephen Sondheim musical—or perhaps her Tony-nominated performance as boozing Claire in the 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. But actually, Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff is the richest hussy in a recently unearthed Horton Foote play, The Old Friends.

I’ll drink to that.

Buckley cemented her place in the hearts of gay fanboys everywhere when she sang “Memory” in Cats and won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in 1983.

Straight off the bus in New York City, she landed the role of Martha Washington in 1776, while London loved her as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

The one-time Miss Fort Worth (1966) is joined in the ironically titled TheOld Friends by the playwright’s daughter Hallie Foote, Veanne Cox, and Cotter Smith from the play’s premiere last year off-Broadway, where it was directed by Michael Wilson. The former Montrose resident also directs the August 15–September 7 production of the play in Houston, which kicks off the “Alley Theatre @ UH” season with performances at the University of Houston while the Alley Theatre undergoes renovation.

To sweeten the pot, Alley favorite Annalee Jefferies is cast as matriarch Mamie Borden, who’s given away her fortune but still holds valuable secrets. “I know your age,” she tells Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff.

Wilson shot to fame when he directed Angels in America at the Alley back in the day. He directed Jefferies as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and guided both Hallie Foote (who scored a 2009 Tony nomination in her father’s play Dividing the Estate) and Cicely Tyson (who won Broadway’s highest honor as last year’s Best Actress in a Play in The Trip to Bountiful).

In 1983, Buckley played country singer Dixie Scott, the ex-wife of washed-up alcoholic Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), in Tender Mercies (which won Foote his second Academy Award after penning the script for To Kill a Mockingbird). Duvall won the 1984 Oscar for Best Actor, while Terms of Endearment beat out Tender Mercies for Best Picture.

In Terms of Endearment, filmed in River Oaks, Shirley MacLaine’s Houston socialite Aurora Greenway is closer to the socio-economic class portrayed in The Old Friends than Foote’s usual cast of characters. Even when they’re land-rich, they’re usually cash-poor. Some of the women in TheOld Friends dress like partygoers in TV’s Mad Men, and the music, including a bossa nova that introduces the audience to the Snob Hill of Foote’s fictional Harrison, Texas, contrasts with the hymn “Blessed Assurance” that Carrie Watts sang on her trip from Houston to Bountiful.

Buckley might not sing a note as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, but she’s triumphed in many non-musical appearances, as well as in films (such as Carrie) and on television (from Eight Is Enough to HBO’s Oz).

Of course, we love her voice, and so did Horton Foote. She was his “benefit singer,” Buckley told hosts Michael Riedel and Susan Haskins on an episode of the PBS show Theater Talk last year. “Whenever people would give him an award, they would ask me to fly in and sing ‘Amazing Grace’ for him.”

In another interview, also promoting TheOld Friends, the host of Side by Side with Susan Blackwell told Buckley, “You play an excellent drunk.”

Blackwell added, “You were inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2013. Which gay bar is that located in?”

Buckley howled with laughter.

Everybody rise!

What: The Old Friends
When: Previews start August 15, opens August 20, and runs through September 7
Where: University of Houston
Tickets/info: alleytheatre.org or 713.220.5700.
Donalevan Maines also writes about the Emmys in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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