by Carol Rocamora
“The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away….”
It’s an age-old phrase, but when you hear it in The Young Man from Atlanta, Horton Foote’s deeply moving play about loss, it’s like hearing it for the first time.
Will Kidder, Foote’s feisty protagonist, gets fired from his top job at a wholesale grocery firm he created in Houston and worked for 37 years, then suffers a heart attack. He becomes prisoner of the lavish new home that he’s built on the promise of continuing prosperity, where he and his wife Lily Dale (Kristine Nielson) are grieving over the recent death of their son Bill in circumstances they are afraid to confront. As if that weren’t enough, their late son’s roommate has come down from Atlanta to lurk in their front yard, insistent on seeing them. Lily wants to know the truth – Will doesn’t, and that conflict fuels this two-hour family drama.
Such grim life circumstances might call to mind Willy and Linda Loman’s in A Death of A Salesman – or George and Martha’s in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But Foote, like his predecessor Chekhov, knows how to write tragedy – by leavening it with comedy. Foote populates his plays with colorful, three-dimensional, flawed, deeply human characters who are selfish and foolish, who deceive themselves and others, who struggle and fail, and who somehow survive. Their struggles range from hilarious to heartbreaking. Played by the able Aidan Quinn, Will is proud, stubborn, blustering, intractable – and lovable. The wonderful Kristine Nielsen, whose singular comedic style has ignited the plays of Chris Durang (and most recently Taylor Mac’s madcap Gary), is an abundance of confusion, contradiction, inconsistency, self-delusion, amusement and charm.
Other colorful characters populate the story – Ted (Devon Abner), who fires Will from the firm, Tom (Dan Bittner), Will’s young associate who takes his position; and Pete (Stephen Payne), Lily Dale’s step-father who comes to stay with them. He brings his nephew Carson (Jon Orsini), who hints at a homosexual relationship between the deceased Bill and the young man from Atlanta. It’s an off-stage plot point that is never resolved because that’s not what Foote is necessarily writing about.
Instead, this gentle, heartwarming, heartbreaking play is about disappointment – a universal element in all our lives. Foote brilliantly introduces this theme “sideways”, so to speak – through Clara (Harriet D. Foy), the Kidder’s housekeeper who mentions a so-called “Disappointment Club,” an unspoken pact among African-American housekeepers in Houston not to appear on the first day of work. That word “disappointment” is repeated numerous times in the play, taking on a broader meaning. Who among us hasn’t suffered from disappointment? Who among us hasn’t been disappointed by unrealized dreams, by aging, by the failed expectations of what life should bring us? Who among us hasn’t been afraid of confronting the “young man from Atlanta” – i. e. the truth – in our lives?
In an era where playwrights are outdoing one another with the newest dramaturgical gimmick, Horton Foote’s plays are a comfort. They’re slow, sturdy, and well-constructed. They’re family plays, and the same universal themes (love, loss, work, home) runs throughout them. As an audience member, you sink into them, reassured that there’s a story to be told. It’s a surprising feeling in this current era of flashy new dramatic and reimagined forms, and a welcome one.
In the sure and steady hands of director Michael Wilson (who has directed Horton Foote’s nine-play The Orphans’ Home Cycle), The Young Man From Atlanta provides joys and sorrows that remind us, again, of Chekhov’s plays, with their continuity of location and thematic content. “We’re going to make it – we always do,” agree Will and Lily Dale at the play’s conclusion – echoing the final lines of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (“we must live”). “Who knows about anything?” they agree, echoing the Doctor in The Three Sisters.
Currently playing at Signature, the theatre that dedicated its fourth season (1994-1995) to Foote (in which Young Man won the Pulitzer Prize), it’s as if this play has come home again. Author of over 50 plays, Horton Foote has claimed his rightful place among America’s great Southern dramatists – Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams – to tell of love, loss, survival, family, work, and abiding faith that transcend time and place and relate to us all.
As John Guare (another Signature playwright) says, “Horton’s reverence for life made me find reverence for mine.”
Photos: Monique Carboni
The Young Man From Atlanta by Horton Foote, directed by Michael Wilson, at the Pershing Square Signature Center through December 15