Life, Death and Family in Foote’s Texase
Nobody in Harrison, Tex., needs to ask for whom the bell tolls. Not, at least, in 1918, the year that gives the title to the opening work in the reverberant final installment of Horton Foote’s “Orphans’ Home Cycle” at the Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street.
Again and again, the iron tongue clangs from the church steeple, and people in town realize that the flu has taken another victim, most likely someone they’re acquainted with. Odds are they’ll know the name of the deceased — and the time and place of death — before the tolling stops.
As anyone realizes who has become addicted to Foote’s serial narrative through the first two parts of this cycle (each part consists of three one-act plays; all three parts are now being performed in repertory), death was never a stranger to Horace Robedaux, who lost his father and his home when he was 12. But in “1918,” the seventh of nine plays that trace Horace’s life from boyhood to the edge of middle age, the reaper moves in as a permanent guest, settling into the bedroom, the parlor, the porch.
“Death, if I don’t think of you, you’ll vanish,” says Horace (Bill Heck), now a husband and father. But a part of him knows that death never vanishes; it’s people who do.
The three short dramas that make up “The Story of a Family,” which opened on Tuesday night, are both the starkest and most sentimental of this lovingly painted life-and-times portrait, directed by Michael Wilson in a co-production of the Hartford Stage and the Signature Theater Company. (The production may move to Broadway in the fall.) The characters of Horace and his wife, Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey), were inspired by Foote’s parents, and they emerge here, in their integrity and fortitude, as the subjects of a son’s hand-colored valentine.
But the family warmth that emanates from this marriage never dispels the more pervasive coldness waiting in the night, something that Americans could hardly pretend to ignore in 1918, when World I was still being fought, and the great flu pandemic raged at home. The sight of family members gathered in mourning at the house of his aunt inspires an outburst of anguish from the usually stoical Horace: “How can human beings stand all that comes to them? How can they?”
That’s a question that Foote, the author of “The Trip to Bountiful” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Young Man From Atlanta,” posed throughout a career that spanned seven decades. And while his plays offer no comforting denial of life’s ruthlessness, they are infused with an admiration for human resilience in the face of death that recalls another, very different 20th-century playwright, Samuel Beckett. The often-cited declaration from Beckett’s novel “The Unnamable” — “I can’t go. I’ll go on.” — would serve nicely as an epigraph for “1918” and its companion pieces, “Cousins” and “The Death of Papa.”
Few works of theater have ever presented this dogged spirit with the literal-mindedness of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” which was written in the 1970s but is only now being staged in its entirety. These plays are packed with quotidian detail and small talk, often among people with small minds.
“But nothing happens,” a friend of mine complained after seeing the first two installments. That’s not true. Murders, madness and mortal illness occur in every one of these plays. It’s just that Foote weaves his melodrama into the plain cloth of everyday events. He knows life’s natural littleness doesn’t cease when big events happen.
That organic balance between things great and small is less assured in “The Story of a Family” than it is in the two earlier groupings, “The Story of a Childhood” and “The Story of a Marriage.” All the plays had to be trimmed — each to roughly an hour — to make the cycle’s presentation possible. And given the steady stream of momentous occurrences in this last section, the telescoping effect can start to feel surreal, with birth, death, disgrace, departure and reunion all happening within absurdly brief stage time. You wish that the poor characters (and sometimes the poor audience) were given at least a chance to catch their breath between deaths.
The advantage of the editing (begun by Foote, who died last year, and finished by his daughter Hallie and Mr. Wilson) is that Foote’s themes emerge with undisguised clarity. And it is perhaps appropriate that the production takes on a rushed momentum, the way life seems to move faster the older you get. More than its predecessors, “Family” brings home the sense of how tenuous existence was in western America in the early 20th century, and how desperate it could become. Small wonder that people
Throughout the cycle, and particularly in “Cousins,” there is much confusion among the characters about who is related to whom, and how. And yet they all keep insisting on tracing the lines of kinship until they get it right. Otherwise, they might be forced to the conclusion of Horace’s embittered Cousin Minnie (Virginia Kull): “A family is a remarkable thing, isn’t it? You belong. And then you don’t. It passes you by.
Ms. Kull is so good as the festering spinster Minnie that you might not recognize her as the beautiful small-town temptress from “The Widow Claire” in the second section of the cycle. One of the pleasures of repertory is watching how actors become different characters. Here, under Mr. Wilson’s gliding direction, this is usually achieved with a simple, restrained grace, acknowledging that the canvas matters more than the figures within it.
That said, allow me to commend a few performers who have stayed the course with particular style and conviction: Annalee Jefferies, who brings an astutely measured blend of guilt and denial to the continuing character of Horace’s weak-willed mother; James DeMarse and Hallie Foote as Horace’s convention-straitened in-laws; and Ms. Lacey, who presents a delicate portrait of beleaguered goodness, suggesting the ambivalence within a supportive wife.
And could someone pin a medal on Mr. Heck, who appears in the cycle’s first and last scenes and so many of those in between? Mr. Heck has the mild, clean-lined handsomeness of an all-American Everyman of an earlier age, which well serves his role. But he also registers, subtly but affectingly, the toll time takes on a man whose greatest goals are to put a tombstone on his father’s unmarked grave and create a home to call his own. Simple wishes, but it says much about Foote’s depiction of our layered relationships with the dead and the living that neither ambition is easily or fully achieved.
THE ORPHANS’ HOME CYCLE
Part 3 — The Story of a Family
By Horton Foote; directed by Michael Wilson; sets by Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber; costumes by David C. Woolard; lighting by Rui Rita; music and sound by John Gromada; projections by Jan Hartley; wig and hair design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer; choreography and movement by Peter Pucci; fight director, Mark Olsen; vocal and dialect coach, Ralph Zito; associate director, Maxwell Williams; production stage manager, Cole P. Bonenberger; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Adam Bernstein; production manager, Paul Ziemer. Presented by the Signature Theater Company, James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director; and Hartford Stage, Michael Wilson, artistic director; Michael Stotts, managing director. Playing in repertory with Parts 1 and 2 at the Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street, Clinton; (212) 244-7529. Through March 28. Running time: 3 hours.
WITH: Devon Abner (Pete Davenport), Mike Boland (Monty Reeves), Pat Bowie (Nurse/Eliza), Leon Addison Brown (Sylvester Malone), James DeMarse (Mr. Vaughn), Hallie Foote (Mrs. Vaughn/Lola Reeves), Justin Fuller (Dr. Greene/Gordon Kirby), Jasmine Amii Harrison (Gertrude), Bill Heck (Horace Robedaux), Henry Hodges (A Boy), Annalee Jefferies (Mrs. Boone/Corella Davenport), Virginia Kull (Bessie Stillman/Minnie Robedaux Curtis), Maggie Lacey (Elizabeth Robedaux), Gilbert Owuor (Sam Goldman), Jenny Dare Paulin (Lily Dale Kidder), Pamela Payton-Wright (Inez Thornton Kirby), Bryce Pinkham (Brother Vaughn), Stephen Plunkett (Will Kidder), Emily Robinson (Irma Sue), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Lewis Higgins), Dylan Riley Snyder (Horace Jr.) and Charles Turner (Walter).