“How can human beings stand all that comes to them?” Horace asks in “The Story of a Family,” the last of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle.” It is 1918, people are dying of influenza at home or in combat overseas, but the question underlies Horton Foote’s entire nine-play cycle. And the answer, after nine hours watching an ensemble of some two dozen wonderful actors presenting 26 years in the life of Horace Robedaux and his extended family, is: They just do.
The characters soldier on through their sorrows without much fuss, just as the playwright depicts their everyday struggles with an engaging modesty and familiarity. It is an approach that contrasts so heavily with the explosive, excessive, confrontational dramas to which we have become accustomed (or deadened) that “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” almost seems like the invention of a new art form. Having now seen all nine plays in three evenings over the last month – plays that will be presented in three programs in repertory at the Signature Theater Company through the end of March — I can say that I have found it the most rewarding theatrical experience of the season and probably one of the most memorable in my life. There is of course some irony in veering towards hyperbole in the exultation over simplicity. And despite my enthusiasm, I reluctantly admit to some disappointment when the lights went out on the final play.
Harrison, Texas, 1902 – 1928
For those new to the enterprise: Horton Foote, who is best known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies” and who died last year at the age of 92, had written the plays that make up “The Orphan’s Home Cycle” over a period of time three to four decades ago. They are inspired by the story of his father, and by his birthplace, the small Texas town of Wharton, which he renamed Harrison. The plays have been trimmed to an hour apiece, and put in chronological order and grouped into three parts, “The Story of A Childhood,” “The Story of A Marriage,” and “The Story of A Family.”
The Story Of A Family
The third part begins, as do the other two, with a wordless prologue that is almost magical in its theatrical effect: Here it is raining, and the men and women walk in a line back and forth with black umbrellas, until we see one of them bend and throw something into what we realize is a cemetery plot. The first play, “1918,” then begins at a grave site. It is 16 years after his father died, but Horace (a consistently effective Bill Heck) finally has the money to put a tombstone on the man’s grave. The problem is he isn’t sure which of the unmarked graves is the one in which his father is buried.
Death and disease visit the family as they do the neighbors, although the Robedaux can be said to be luckier than some, when Horace’s wife Elizabeth (the lovely Maggie Lacey) gives birth to Horace, Jr., who, it eventually becomes clear, will grow up to be the playwright.
In “Cousins,” Horace is seven years older and the proprietor of a clothing store, employing as a clerk one of his many, many cousins; the play is among other things a quietly humorous exploration of the complications of an extended family, of drunken “second cousins once removed” and arguments of who is kin to whom and how. There is much such understated but rich humor throughout Foote’s plays.
We are also updated on such familiar members of the family as Horace’s spoiled sister Lily Dale, his reckless drunken brother-in-law (whom everybody calls simply Brother), the stepfather who barred him from the home and the mother who acquiesced in Horace’s banishment. (Each of the actors here plays their characters to perfection, with the particular stand-out Bryce Pinkham as Brother).
The cycle ends with “The Death of Papa,” with scenes that recall the very first play. Then Horace as a boy was confronted with the death of his father and its lasting consequences. Here Horace Jr. is confronted with the death of his grandfather, Horace’s father-in-law. The symmetry is underscored by the characters of Horace and Horace Jr. being played by the same young actor, Dylan Riley Snyder.
With the overly inquisitive and dangerously bookish Horace, Jr., Foote has made himself into a comic character. After an African-American girl tells him she wants to become a teacher or a nurse to help her race, the ten-year-old Horace says to his mother, “I’d like to help my race too. What can I do?”
By the end, when the remaining family members gather for a meal, it is clear that there will be no clear-cut conclusions; no dramatic revelations that wrap it all up; no real ending. These are slices of life that we witnessed, and they could go on for another 26 years.
In a way they did: Lily Dale, Horace’s sister, whom we first see at the age of 10, is the same character we see at age 60 (along with two other characters from the cycle, her husband and stepfather) in Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta,” set in Houston in 1950, a play that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1995.
Given that the pleasures of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” are more for the interplay of character than for the sweep of narrative, I began to wonder while watching Part 3 whether some of the plays would have been better served at full length and on their own. After all, would the ten plays of August Wilson’s Century Cycle have worked as well as they did if they had been condensed and presented as a single theatrical event? If this smacks of Foote fatigue, I plead the opposite: There are simply moments here that started to feel as if they were going by too quickly. I would like to have lingered.
There are only two short months to see “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” at the Signature – and only about six weeks to see them for $20 a part. (If I were only going to see one of the three parts, I would see Part 2). Yet, the producers of “Orphans’ Home Cycle” reportedly plan to bring the entire nine-play experience to Broadway in the fall. Whether or not this happens, I strongly suspect that, like the lives they contain, the plays will go on.
The Orphans’ Home Cycle by Horton Foote Part Three- The Story Of A Family Through March 28th at the Peter Norton Space of Signature Theater Company, 555 West 42nd Street Directed by Michael Wilson Scenic design by Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber, costume design by David C. Woolard, lighting design 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 Space Cast: Devon Abner, Mike Boland, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, James DeMarse, Hallie Foote, Justin Fuller, Jasmine Harrison, Bill Heck, Henry Hodges, Annalee Jefferies, Virginia Kull, Maggie Lacey, Gilbert Owuor, Jenny Dare Paulin, Pamela Payton-Wright, Bryce Pinkham, Stephen Plunkett, Emily Robinson, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Dylan Riley Snyder and Charles Turner Running time for Part II– Three hours with two intermissions Ticket prices: $20 through March 7. ($60 afterwards) Photographs by Gregory Costanzo. Top: Hallie Foote (Horton Foote’s daughter); middle, Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey; bottom, Bill Heck, Maggie Lacey, Hallie Foote, Bryce Pinkham and Dylan Riley Snyder.