“The Young Man from Atlanta,” about an aging couple whose only son has died young, is the wrong play by Horton Foote to revive –- it’s dated, and overrated — but one can guess why the Signature theater and director Michael Wilson have picked it over other Foote plays that would be a better fit for 2019.
It was one of the plays that Signature premiered as part of its season devoted to the playwright in 1995, when it won for Foote, at age 79, the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The play was restaged on Broadway two years later, and though it ran for only 84 performances, it marked the playwright’s return there after an absence of 43 years.
“A Young Man From Atlanta,” in other words, revived the theatrical reputation of a prolific playwright who had become primarily known as a screenwriter: He had won Academy Awards for both “To Kill A Mockingbird” with Gregory Peck and “Tender Mercies” with Robert Duval.
But over the previous half century, Foote had written more than 50 plays. Director Michael Wilson took a new look at nine of them, all of which were set in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, based on Foote’s birthplace of Wharton, Texas, and inspired by the story of Foote’s father. Foote died in 2009 ten days short of his 93rd birthday, and nine months before Wilson mounted “The Orphans Home Cycle,” a chronological ordering of those nine plays so that they traced 28 years in the life of one man and his extended family, which I just included in my list of the top 10 plays of the decade.
In these plays, his characters soldier on through their sorrows without much fuss, just as the playwright depicts their everyday struggles with an engaging simplicity, which under the surface contains a deep well of feeling.
Wilson has gone on to direct two more of Foote’s plays on Broadway, “Dividing the Estate”, and “The Trip To Bountiful,” starring a transcendent Cicely Tyson. It makes sense that he would want to try his hand at the one Foote play that won the Pulitzer. Wilson employs for his design team many of the same people he had hired for the previous Foote plays he directed, but the effect is not the same.
Some of the characters from the “The Orphans Home Cycle” are in “The Young Man From Atlanta,” now older and living in Houston in 1950. Will Kidder (Aidan Quinn) is now 64 years old and, as the play begins, he is a self-confident executive in a wholesale grocery company where he’s worked for four decades. Yet his conversation with a younger colleague soon veers to the death of his son, Bill. At the age of 37, Bill drowned on a business trip to Florida, when he walked into a lake. “Everyone has their theories…I’m a realist. He committed suicide. Why, I don’t know.”
Shortly afterward, Will’s boss enters his office to fire him, saying apologetically that the company’s in trouble and the position needs a younger man.
Will tries to put a positive spin on what’s happened, telling himself he’ll start his own business.
At home, Lily Dale (Kristine Nielsen) doesn’t even pretend to be on top of things. She was a composer and a pianist, and has neither written nor played a note since her son died.
There are a half dozen other characters in “The Young Man from Atlanta,” mostly in scenes that feel slow-moving and tangential. (I need to say here that I don’t blame the actors, many of whom – Kristine Nielsen, Aidan Quinn, Jon Orsini, Stephen Payne — I’ve seen give far more memorable performances in other productions.) But the most important of these characters in the play doesn’t have any scenes at all. The title character never appears on stage.
The man, named Randy, was Bill’s “roommate” in Atlanta, ten years his junior. Will doesn’t like him; he says during the funeral the young man “got hysterical and cried more than my wife.” There are other such unmistakable clues. A former maid of the family (standout Pat Bowie) pays a visit; the sole purpose of this scene seems to be to talk about what a terrific five-year-old Bill was – that he was “pretty” and didn’t like baseball, although Will kept on trying to interest his son in the game.
So, Bill was gay, and he committed suicide. The only facts really open to question are: Did the young man from Atlanta take advantage of Bill, and is he doing so now with Lily Dale, who’s been seeing him secretly without telling Will and giving him gifts of money?
No characters utter a single word (even in euphemism) about homosexuality, a silence that of course would probably be characteristic of a conservative (explicitly Republican) couple in Houston in 1950. But I struggle to detect anything in the play that sufficiently separates Foote’s attitudes in 1995 from his characters’ in 1950. To the characters, homosexuality cannot be discussed, and homosexuals are invisible. But the playwright keeps both off the stage as well.
And then, the gay man has apparently committed suicide – a hoary plot line for a drama that was first produced some 30 years after Stonewall! Way back in 1968, “The Boys in the Band” made fun of just such a lazy, hateful fate that was near-universally imposed on fictional homosexuals up to that point. “The Young Man From Atlanta” suggests the other one-time common homophobic trope — the gay man as villain. (It is, as I said, left ambiguous as to whether the unseen Randy is indeed villainous, or whether another character, Carson (Orsini), is the real villain and lying about Randy.)
Now, each of these unenlightened elements in the play separately might be defended as artistic choices in pursuit of a larger goal. I understand that the play bears a superficial resemblance to “Death of A Salesman” – that Will Kidder like Willy Loman has chosen self-delusion and denial in pursuit of the American Dream, and defined success in ways that destroy the soul. I’d also hate to be one of those critics who seem to see every work of art through the fixed lens of their personal (and often self-righteous) political worldview. But there are so many other plays by Horton Foote that are so lovely, so affecting, and don’t feel as if they are written with the same prejudices and limitations of the time and place in which they are set.
The Young Man from Atlanta
Written by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson.
Scenic design by Jeff Cowie, costume design by Van Broughton Ramsey, lighting design by David Lander, sound design and original music by John Gromada
Devon Abner as Ted Cleveland Jr., Dan Bittner as Tom Jackson, Pat Bowie as Etta Doris, Harriet D. Foy as Clara, Kristine Nielsen as Lily Dale, Jon Orsini as Carson, Stephen Payne as Pete Davenport, and Aidan Quinn as Will Kidder.
Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, including one intermission
The Young Man from Atlanta is on stage through December 15, 2019