Monday, November 23, 2009

The Orphans' Home Cycle (Part 1)


(photo by Gregory Constanzo)

By Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. Signature Theatre. Through Mar. 28.

In a bittersweet irony worthy of the playwright himself, Horton Foote is receiving possibly his warmest embrace less than a year after he died at 92, with the first installment (subtitled "The Story of a Childhood") in a nine-play epic of small-town Texas life. Most critics echo Ben Brantley's observation that Foote's plays, which individually can seem like well-turned miniatures, take on gratifying heft and scope when stacked together. Though a few critics knock the first play, Roots in a Parched Ground for being mostly expositional, and some others see the second play, Convicts, as an outlier (for better or worse), all but the Bergen Record's Robert Feldberg are thrilled with anticipation for the journey ahead, when Parts II and III open (Dec. 13 and Jan. 24, respectively). Most-used adjective for Michael Wilson's direction: cinematic.

Wall Street Journal A+
(Terry Teachout) It will, I suspect, be remembered as the most significant theatrical event of the season, the kind of show you tell your grandchildren you saw...Nothing much happens in "The Story of a Childhood"...nor do the characters have anything especially memorable to say. In place of studied eloquence, Foote offers us a Chekhov-like poetry of place and atmosphere, as homespun as a hand-me-down quilt. Yet this group portrait of small-town life, like "The Trip to Bountiful" before it, is neither comfortably nostalgic nor tiresomely bitter. Instead Foote shows us the world as it really is, subtly heightened by lyricism but always true to experience..."The Story of a Childhood" has the narrative sweep that you look for in major novels, coupled with the electric immediacy that only live theater can supply...Mr. Wilson, who also directed "Dividing the Estate," has staged "The Story of a Childhood" with supple, near-cinematic fluidity, moving from scene to scene so easily that you almost forget you're watching a play.

Backstage A+
(Erik Haagensen) By the time director Michael Wilson's bone-deep production of the first part of Horton Foote's "The Orphans' Home Cycle" is over, nearly three hours have passed in the blink of an eye. I wanted the second part to begin immediately...Foote based his work on the life of his father, which he learned of through numerous family stories told repeatedly to him in his youth. He certainly listened well: The writing is wise, deeply observant, and impressively detailed. Deceptively small-scaled and naturalistic, the work is really epic in scope, placing the lives of these modest people against the sweeping forces of social change and the vagaries of time. There is more genuine myth evoked in a single moment of Foote's simplicity than in all the self-consciously poetic strivings of the Public Theater's current "The Brother/Sister Plays." There's not a weak link in the 22-member company, which serves the writing beautifully under Wilson's piercingly clear-eyed direction...What we are being served here is nothing less than an American masterwork.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Promises to be the great adventure of this theater season...Directed with cinematic fluidity and novelistic detail by Michael Wilson, “The Story of a Childhood” leaves you as eager as a kid who has just started his first fat work of fiction by Charles Dickens, say, or Mark Twain, when putting down the book, even for an hour, feels like punishment...It’s a thrilling demonstration of an artist long regarded only as a miniaturist soaring into the realm of the epic...The exposition-heavy “Roots” is, on its own, the least interesting of the plays, but a necessary (and painless) initiation into the family trees that shade the cycle. “Convicts,” on the other hand, is a juicy slice of Lone Star gothic...The basis for a 1991 film starring Robert Duvall, “Convicts,” here acted by a uniformly excellent supporting cast, is the evening’s glorious and pathetic ghost story, in which people are doomed to haunt themselves...Anchored by geography and genealogy, Foote’s characters are nonetheless unmoored travelers in forever uncharted lands. That their creator has shaped them with such warm compassion and cold clarity makes us eager to accompany them on every step of an odyssey that is somehow as surprising as it is familiar.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) An impressive introduction to Foote's three-part, nine-play marathon...Foote has a particular gift for time and place, expertly capturing the era and that area of southeast Texas where he grew up...While it may not seem as if there is an abundance of plot, Foote is quietly building a collection of finely etched characters. And director Michael Wilson has marshaled a fine cast to portray these people. There is an innate melancholy to Heck's performance, a sadness that suggests there will be enough material for several more evenings of drama...If Part 1 of "The Orphans' Home Cycle" is any indication, we are in for a remarkable journey.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) Yes, these three one-act plays include leisurely strolls down memory lane, but there is so much life compressed here: greed, disease, murder, cruelty to children, the bitter legacy of slavery and a sad, ambivalent hero—Horace Robedaux, alienated observer of a family that abandoned him...As in most Foote plays, the terse, quietly suffering characters are caught between the past and the future, hoping to reinvent themselves but also ensnared by a dimly remembered past. Director Michael Wilson and his versatile, highly talented ensemble (including the radiant Hallie Foote, the late author’s daughter) wrestle their material into shape, delivering three hours of episodic narrative spanning 1902 to 1910 without a dull moment...Foote’s understated epic is an authentic American classic about the birth pangs of the 20th century. It’s told with humor, deep sadness and great writerly craft. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Faster Times A
(Jonathan Mandell) On the evidence of the three plays of Part I, I am already hooked...These first three hour-long plays, presented together under the title “The Story of A Childhood,” offer a committed cast of 21 actors in a splendidly fluid production that promises to turn Foote’s character studies (most of which had been produced previously) into a theatrical epic that recalls such past stage marathons as the Royal Shakespeare Theater’s Life and Adventure of Nicholas Nickleby or Robert Shenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle–-all at a cost of just $20 per ticket.

Entertainment Weekly A-
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) There's much melancholy beauty to be found in The Story of a Childhood...No one is better equipped than director Michael Wilson to handle the delicate rhythms of this writer's work...The pace is appropriately, achingly languorous. Anyone not familiar with Foote's light-on-plot, heavy-on-character storytelling style — if it's important, it happens off stage, and we hear about it 10 different ways — might find themselves getting anxious. Foote's particular brand of poetry can seem old-fashioned, even simplistic. But with its tales of harsh times, social and economic change, Reconstruction, education, and industry in small-town America, The Story of a Childhood heralds the beginning of something extraordinary. And you'll be waiting with baited breath for Foote's next chapter.

Talkin' Broadway A-
(Matthew Murray) This could be the event of the season. But more than that, it could well become another grand theatrical epic, in line with O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra or Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, but based on places, people, and feelings that don’t draw their inspiration from Greek tragedy or 19th-century European politics, but instead from the very fabric of America...As Horace’s story unfolds, the depth and insight of Foote’s milieu - and its potential when spread across the better part of three decades - reveal and distinguish themselves. The problems of Horace and his family, though small in the grand scheme of things, read large for the reason similar trials in Foote plays so often do: they intimately treat the experiences and fears with which we all grapple...“The Story of a Childhood” can often seem more like a promise than a delivery, background information for the more probing visions of the past to come. The first and third plays are captivating because of their devotion to family drama, but the second is a rocky digression that - at least at this point - seems necessary more for thematic than plot reasons...But don’t let that deter you...If the rest of The Orphans’ Home Cycle lives up to this first installment, it will be a true joy discovering the answer over the next few months.

Edge Boston A-
(Jonathan Leaf) I’d be very surprised if a hundred years hence it isn’t more and more fondly recalled than the first production of Eugene O’Neill’s torpid and pretentious epic, Strange Interlude, for instance - or even than Tony Kushner’s Angels in America...The faults of Foote’s vastly broad but utterly intimate study of life in rural Texas in the first decades of the last century are many, and they are abundantly on display...The performances of the actors, working under Hartford Stage director Michael Wilson, also vary widely in quality. But the strengths of both presentation and of the plays are very considerable. Foote has the humanity and the knowledge of people that lie at the essence of the important artist, and the comparisons made between Foote and Chekhov are hardly unjustified...In bringing the cycle to the stage, both Signature and Hartford Stage, as the joint producers, deserve our praise. For the production is both handsome and immense...Is this great theater? It is at least very, very good.

New York Post B+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Rarely has something so epic been so unassuming. A lot happens in Horton Foote's three-hour-long "The Story of a Childhood," set in the rough and tumble world of early 20th-century Texas. The tone never wavers from a certain humble plainness, even when scenes deal with jealousy and alcoholism or allude to tragic deaths...Few authors write pettiness as well as Foote does, and few actors play it as well as his own daughter Hallie, brilliant as always in relatively short parts. Granted, there are times when you wish the plays could be pricklier, messier. Doesn't anyone ever scream in this world? But then you realize that by not raising his voice, Foote gives his melancholy a subversive edge.

Bloomberg News B+
(John Simon) A magnificent cross-section of a great playwright’s career...Michael Wilson’s fluid staging helps to tie together three somewhat disparate acts. But what most justifies the three-hour duration, which includes two brief intermissions, is Foote’s uncanny ability to empathize with his characters, regardless of how marginal or unsympathetic they are.

Theatermania B+
(Dan Balcazo) An excellent start to this epic undertaking...The first piece on the bill, Roots in a Parched Ground, is the weakest, primarily because it is overladen with exposition...Things pick up considerably in the second play, Convicts, set on Christmas Eve, 1904. The teenage Horace has entered the workforce, clerking at a plantation store and occasionally watching over the African-American prison laborers who work the fields...The piece is also full of macabre humor and terrific supporting performances...The third play of the evening, Lily Dale, is set in Houston in 1910...The entire cast delivers nuanced performances, but the clear stand-out in this section is [Annalee] Jefferies...Wilson has directed the evening with a cinematic eye, aided by Jan Hartley's projections, the lush original music and sound design by John Gromada, and the sliding units from scenic designers Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber.

Village Voice B
(Michael Feingold) Remarkably bleak. Far from exploiting period nostalgia or sentimentality, Foote's account of Horace's childhood is an epic of negativity, in which expected kindness or decency constantly get withheld...In decades past, Foote's longer plays used to infuriate me: They seemed nothing but wall-to-wall recitation of family connections. His new distillation juxtaposes these thick blocks of chatter with the deadly silences of despair and isolation, making the family tree seem less a source of inheritors' pride than a set of mental handgrips to cling to against the void. Powerful as Foote's material is, it still contains static sections, particularly in the second half of "Convicts," where the expository motor seems to hum without moving anything forward; director Michael Wilson's cast sometimes adds to the hum by simply passing the data along rather than stamping it with any individual character. Many in the large cast do better than that, however, and Foote's legacy to his daughter, Hallie, now includes another of the showy, sharp-tongued roles she seizes with such vigor, as the skinflint plantation owner's nasty, drunken niece.

Bergen Record B
(Robert Feldberg) Anyone who's seen Foote's work knows that nothing terribly dramatic is said or done...The second play, "Convicts," the evening's weakest link, has 14-year-old Horace working at a plantation store in order to earn money for his father's headstone. It focuses, however, on the plantation's owner, Soll Gautier, a demented, violent, alcoholic old man who runs his spread with the aid of indentured convicts. Gautier, who takes a liking to Horace, is a nasty piece of work, and it's hard to figure out why he gets so much face time. Feeling and nuance return with "Lily Dale," as Horace, now 20, accepts his mother's invitation to visit her and Lily Dale in Houston for a week...You might anticipate that the succession of the three plays – or, at least, the first and third – would deepen our involvement with the earnest young hero. But that doesn't really happen. The main reason, I think, is that Horace is essentially an unchanging victim, a passive figure – it's hard to get a handle on his inner life — to whom bad things happen. The production has been nicely designed, and efficiently staged by Michael Wilson, but few of the performers – most of them playing multiple roles – give their characters much oomph.

Wall Street Journal A+ 14; Backstage A+ 14; The New York Times A 13; Associated Press A 13; Time Out NY A 13; Faster Times A 13; Entertainment Weekly A- 12; Talkin' Broadway A- 12; Edge Boston A- 12; NYPost B+ 11; BN B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; VV B 10; Bergen Record B 10; TOTAL: 169/14=12.07 (A-)

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