While plaudits and bouquets are being thrown toward Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle—nine one-act plays divided into three evenings, running in repertory at the Signature Theatre—my feeling, which is also quite positive, is nonetheless more muted. Mr. Foote (who recently died at 92 while preparing and editing the debut of this cycle, most of whose components were written in the 70s and performed separately—and variously—onstage and on screen) is the reigning master of small moments writ large, delving into the prosaic lives of prosaic people, most of them from small, Southern towns, most of their language devoid of wordplay or conspicuous wit, most of their stories set between the turn of the 20th Century and the 1970s. (Indeed, most of Foote's active writing career seems to have stopped in the early 80s; but his plays—produced regionally and with little success on Broadway—have been having a resurgence and rediscovery unique in American theatre [possibly triggered by the 1985 film version of his 1953 play, The Trip to Bountiful], such that major new productions of catalog plays are not received as the revivals they technically are, but rather take on the luster of premieres, since it is only in revival that they have earned their due attention.)
But as befits an imprimatur that zeroes in on the minutiae of "just folks," Mr. Foote's work has a hit-or-miss quality to it, and the line between a hypnotic spell woven and lulling monotony is often extremely fine. And the Cycle, consolidating plays written over many years, thus being a distillation of Foote's spectrum, shows him at his very best and his—I won't say worst, because that's harshly untrue—but let;'s say close to his least effective. At times the Cycle can be unbearably poignant, such as when the death of a parent will render a child unwanted; at times it can be patience-trying, as when the boy, now a young man, courts a young lady who will clearly never get it together enough to choose him over less destructive suitors; at times it can be reaffirming, such as when the young man claims his dignity as family provider, refusing all offers of aid, thus finally achieving the respect of his wealthy father-in-law. All of these situations (and many more), are dramatized in the first two parts of the Cycle (the third has yet to open), which follow aforementioned young man, Horace Robedaux from his 12th year through his mid-20s.
balance, though, the worthwhile far outweighs the merely endurable, and both
director Michael Wilson and his 21
member cast (which of course features Foote's daughter, the
excellent Hallie Foote) deliver up a
marathon of cinematic fluidity and consistent, sensitive texturing. And
whatever else is true, Mr. Foote's corner of Americana seems largely
undramatized elsewhere; his work is worth supporting if only because without
it, a bit of our national heritage fades away...
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