"Foxfire," which came to the Barrymore last evening, is a whisper of a play, a muted evocation of an apparently vanishing breed, the poor but proud Appalachian farmers who dig a living out of the stony mountain soil.
Based by its authors, Susan Cooper and actor Hume Cronyn, who is also starred in it along with his wife, Jessica Tandy, and Keith Carradine, on memories of the older mountain people recorded by a younger generation (these recollections, edited by the students' teacher, were subsequently published as the "Foxfire" books), it is a loosely strung-together piece of stagecraft exerting a quiet fascination. The seams show here and there, where pieces of the past are affixed to this and that character, but there is a generally unforced quality about the writing, acting and, despite some stiffness in the first half, in the direction, as well.
The land developers who have been slicing the tops off Blue Ridge Mountains to build expensive summer colonies no doubt commanding views of neighboring flattops now arrive, in the person of a live-wire native son (Trey Wilson), at the crude cabin and 100 acres or so belonging to 79-year-old widow Anne Nations (Tandy). Though husband Hector (Cronyn) was laid to rest in the apple orchard five years ago, he is still very much present to Annie. And through scenes taking place today and in the past, Hector's ghostly and corporeal presences weaving through them, we gain an idea of the simple strength, the moral fiber, the dedication to this harsh life in beautiful surroundings characterizing the people.
What plot there is, aside from the land developer's offer, concerns the return of Dillard Nations, a guitar-playing son who has found a successful career as a hillbilly singer with his own small band but whose wife has run off from their Florida home with another man, leaving their two small children behind. Dillard, who happens to have a playing date in nearby Greenville (the play is set in the northwest section of Georgia), would like his mother to give up this lonely mountain life, not just to look after his children while he's on the road but also out of concern for her solitude.
As artfully, and even humorously, as the play is acted by its three stars, there is only one genuinely pulsating moment, and that is when, having just listened to Cronyn's crude delivery of a country song as his wife is giving birth to Dillard, we are swept across the stage to the Greenville concert where the gaudily dressed Dillard is whipping through a hyped-up version of the same song with his band.
Tandy and Cronyn are marvelous, of course, and Carradine is winning as the son. Other agreeable work is turned in by Wilson as the developer's representative with the $100,000 offer and by James Greene as the doctor delivering Dillard. Katherine Cortez is less convincing as a local girl who has become a schoolteacher in the area.
A weak stab is made, especially by the pretty schoolteacher, at Dillard's desertion of the old homestead, with an even weaker hint at a possible romantic attachment between the two. But this, like the rest of this low-keyed work, is kept at a distance in the authors' mostly careful avoidance of theatrical flourishes.
David Trainer has staged the play sensitively, though a trifle ponderously, especially in the early scenes. David Mitchell's setting is distinguished by a cyclorama showing the Blue Ridge peaks stretching their green slopes through the veiled distance. Linda Fisher's costumes and Ken Billington's lighting complement the rest of the work admirably. Carradine's supporting instrumental trio is lively and accomplished.
"Foxfire" is a play that commands our respect without ever stirring us very deeply.
There can be no two ways about it. I feel positively ashamed I didn't have a better time at Foxfire, which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater last night. At times I thought it had everything going for it except me. And perhaps it has.
Take, for example, the setting. I promise you - Boy Scout's honor, not that I was ever a Boy Scout - that it looks as pretty as a picture postcard of an old farmhouse deep in the heart of the Southern Appalachians.
David Mitchell's scenery has left nothing out except the postage stamp. And that, I suppose, is appropriate enough, for this play by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, is in a sense a letter home from lost Appalachia.
It is a shrewd, yet honest, invitation to share in a nostalgia for something we never knew. A world of honesty, integrity and old American values - values splendidly typified theatrically by its stars, the ironically British-born Jessica Tandy and her husband, the ironically Canadian-born Cronyn.
The play has more of a theme than a story. It is based on accumulate and collected memories of a fast dissolving past. The name of the play - with its explanation - tells all.
Foxfire itself is a fungoid lichen found in the forests of Southern Appalachia. It lives on dead, fallen trees and it glows in the dark.
When young Appalachian students started to record the stories of the older folk living in the area - the tales and songs of some of America's last pioneers - they were first published in a magazine called Foxfire, and later attained book form.
Cronyn and Cooper have taken this material and weaved from it the simple story of Annie and Hector Nations. Hector is five years dead when the play begins - dead that is to everyone but Annie, who keeps his memory so green that he talks to her, and indeed even has a life of his own with the audience, that is to say us, who have been invited along.
The Nations had five children - but two died in infancy, two appear to be permanently alienated, and only one, a successful country singer, Dillard Nations, keeps contact.
Dillard is having marital problems, lives in Florida with his two kids, and is anxious for his mother to accept an offer for the farmland - it is to be made into classy resort homes - and to pack up and join him in Florida.
The Cherry Orchard it isn't. Yet there is the same sense of change, the same conflict between the old and the new, the same reluctance to accept the inevitable.
But whereas Chekov made The Cherry Orchard into a play, this Appalachian apple orchard remains stubbornly a parcel of anecdotes tied around with a loose string of circumstance.
The events - real, memory or fantasy - are never dramatically shaped, and remain floating in the air like a mist, suggesting the atmosphere of a time and place rather than its substance.
This anthology mood - if I can call it such - is heightened by the interpolation of a few country songs performed, with considerable expertise, by Keith Carradine, as the visiting son, and a trio of musicians. Their intrusion seems an odd one, even though it is dovetailed into the play's character.
Despite my own misgivings and, yes, disappointment, Foxfire will offer light and illumination to many people. As I mentioned, it looks splendid, David Trainer has staged it with a comfortable familiarity, and the acting is adorable.
The three supporting actors, Trey Wilson as a smarmy, yet not unlikable real estate man, Katherine Cortez as an agreeable young schoolmarm and, particularly, James Greene as a no-nonsense country doctor, are all delightful.
But the play depends on its trio of stars, especially the Cronyns, whose jalopy this is. Carradine gangles effectively as the son - singing or acting he is a most attractive performer - and the Cronyns are superb. Did anyone expect them not to be?
Cronyn looks as though he has been carved out of wood, while Tandy has been moulded from alabaster. They are so good, so natural and so impassioned - and all in the quietest of possible ways.
If you want to see acting at its carefully refined finest take in Foxfire - but, if you take my advice, don't go expecting too much of the play.
Jessica Tandy is the only real reason to consider seeing ''Foxfire,'' the play that opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore, but that's a reason to be taken seriously. Everything this actress does is so pure and right that only poets, not theater critics, should be allowed to write about her.
Here is one legendary performer who doesn't use her advanced years as an excuse to settle into a ritualistic star turn. Instead, she keeps refining a talent that has never, in my experience, been less than brilliant. In her last Broadway appearance, as Glenda Jackson's mother in a dull piece called ''Rose,'' Miss Tandy only appeared in a single, quiet scene, yet she found more drama in the simple act of sitting in a chair and gripping her purse than most actors do in whole plays. The image is indelible for those who saw it, even though the rest of ''Rose'' has long since evaporated completely.
''Foxfire'' also evaporates, but it gives Miss Tandy more, if by no means enough, to do. The actress plays Annie Nations, a 79-year-old Appalachian matriarch at the crossroads of her past and future. Dressed in a shapeless black dress, her white hair up in a bun, this beautiful woman has made herself look unglamorous and plain, as befits a widow in Rabun County, Ga. Yet we keep getting caught up in the homely, finely spun details that can make the ordinary spellbinding - the delicate, sparrow-like hand-flutters that appear only when words won't do, the slightly stooped walk that one only gradually recognizes as arthritic and the face that's as smooth and tranquil and kindly as a baby's but that can suddenly draw up into a death mask of grief and fear.
And, even so, one isn't prepared for what Miss Tandy does in a transcendent moment that shakes ''Foxfire'' out of its lethargy early in Act II. Asked to jump back 62 years in a flashback - to the time Annie first was courted by her husband - the actress leaps high into the air, as lithe and controlled as a ballerina, and in a few jig steps shakes off all the layers of time she has previously cloaked about herself. My guess is that you could watch this moment again and again and not figure out the magic - call it art - by which Miss Tandy instantly transforms an aged woman into a dewy girl.
If you want to see that moment once - and any student of acting would -you'll have to stomach a hard bargain. Inspired by the popular folklore anthologies of the same title, ''Foxfire'' was not so much written as pasted together by Miss Tandy's co-star and husband, Hume Cronyn, in collaboration with Susan Cooper. It's a patchwork job that makes the actual patchwork quilts on stage look like whole cloth by comparison. The kind-spirited contents include a halfhearted story, some mildly amusing downhome anecdotes about vanished folkways and several modest country songs written by Jonathan Holtzman and sung by the guitar-strumming Keith Carradine, in the role of Mr. Cronyn and Miss Tandy's prodigal son.
The story is so predictable that you can guess most of it as soon as Mr. Carradine and Trey Wilson, as a real-estate entrepreneur, descend on Annie Nations in the play's opening minutes. The son, a successful singer, wants to convince his mother to leave her isolated Blue Ridge mountain homestead and live with him and her grandchildren in Florida; the salesman wants to buy the old log cabin and develop the property. Should Annie Nations turn her back on the land that her husband worked his whole life and his father before that? Has her son already sold out his heritage by becoming a show-business hillbilly? The threadbare conflict between tradition and progress is joined in a flash, soon to be elaborated on ad infinitum in regional dialect.
There are other complications, too, including the son's marital problems, but the whole story never really does get going; midway in Act II, it peters out entirely until a sudden surge at the final curtain. What slows the evening further, until it plays like ''The Waltons'' under water whenever Miss Tandy isn't around, are the playwriting gimmicks that inhibit such action as there is.
While ''Foxfire'' is loaded with flashbacks to fill in the Nations family past, they are usually too snapshotlike to mean much; they mainly serve to halt the present-day plot each time it summons the courage to lurch forward. The other dubious device is that Hector Nations, the father played by Mr. Cronyn, has been dead for five years when the play opens. Except in the splintery memory sequences, he appears as a ghostly narrator - a cross between the ''Our Town'' stage manager and Cosmo Topper.
What this means is that Mr. Cronyn and Miss Tandy can rarely have sustained scenes together in the play's present; a few delightfully tart exchanges aside, they often pass like ships in the night. This is a grievous loss that cheats the audience and both actors, especially when one recalls the fiery Cronyn-Tandy interplay in their past vehicles. In the longest scene the couple shares here, a flashback, Miss Tandy must address Mr. Cronyn as Hector's corpse, stretched out on a table.
Mr. Cronyn's upright solo turns, laced with crackerbarrel vignettes and Tevye-like biblical quotations, are well done. The role is a Pa Kettle cliche - the set-in-his-ways, emotionally reticent, backwoods family autocrat - but the actor delivers his spiels with dyspeptic comic relish reminiscent of his work in ''The Gin Game.'' Though he can't redeem the homilitic lectures about the virtues of the land and ''plain hard work,'' perhaps not even Gabby Hayes could.
Mr. Carradine's forced hail-fellow-well-met routine is journeyman acting. In smaller roles, the talents of Mr. Wilson and James Greene are underused; Katherine Cortez does nothing with the cryptically defined character of a schoolteacher, and, like everyone except Miss Tandy and Mr. Wilson, has the wrong Southern twang.
David Trainer's direction, which puts great stock in repeated tableaux and the hokey uses of rocking chairs, takes us clear back past Golden Pond to Tobacco Road. Happily, the overly posed pictures are framed within an elaborate, weatherbeaten David Mitchell set, backed by shimmering blue-green peaks, that indeed makes us believe that we are seeing what ''Foxfire'' calls ''the most beautiful place in America.''
But let Miss Tandy step in front of the mountains, and we totally forget that any scenery is there.