Theater Review - Theatrical Outfit brings the best out of Atlanta

Horton Foote's flawed Pulitzer winner recounts a tragedy in Houston

A decade and a half after Horton Foote's The Young Man From Atlanta won the Pulitzer Prize, Theatrical Outfit stages the play's Atlanta premiere. You might wonder, "Why did it take 16 years for The Young Man From Atlanta to reach the ATL?" A better question might be, "How did such a flawed script win the Pulitzer in the first place?"

A beloved, plain-speaking Southern author hailed as "the American Chekhov," Foote won Best Screenplay Oscars for To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, but by 1995 had yet to be Pulitzered. The Young Man From Atlanta revisited characters from his "The Orphan's Home" cycle of plays, which perhaps provided a justification for the Pulitzer committee to acknowledge Foote's entire career. Plus, his competitors that year — David Mamet, with The Cryptogram, and August Wilson, with Seven Guitars, had already won the prize for better work.

Young Man may have been so long in coming to Atlanta because it stands so unsteadily on its own merits. Fortunately, director Jessica Phelps West brings out the best in both a weak script and a strong cast.

Foote's first scenes unfold like Playwriting 101 examples of what not to do, as characters deliver looong stretches of exposition through one-sided conversations that may as well be speeches. The play opens with the entrance of Will Kidder (artistic director Tom Key), who wears a black Stetson and, at 64 years old, remains a go-getter at Sunshine Wholesale Grocery. He shows his house plans to his young protégé (Andrew Benator) and claims to have the best of everything. He lives in the best city (Houston), is married to the best wife, and now has possibly the best house, which just cost him $200,000 — and this is in 1950. Before you can say "Death of a Salesman," Will sees his ideals collapse when his boss (Robin Bloodworth) fires him in favor of a younger replacement.

Will and wife, Lily Dale (Marianne Hammock) have been grieving over the death of their only child, Bill, who drowned in his 30s under mysterious circumstances. Lily Dale tells her aging stepfather Pete (Frank Roberts) about her strange, secret relationship with Randy, the youthful Atlantan of the title. Randy lived with Bill in the same Atlanta boarding house, attests that Bill had a renewal of religious faith, and asserts that his death must have been an accident, not suicide. The third scene begins with Lily Dale summarizing the events of the play so far, perhaps for the benefit of latecomers.

Randy may not be the person Lily Dale perceives him to be. The action just happens to coincide with the visit from another, younger man from Atlanta, Pete's nephew Carson (Tim Batten). A fresh-faced twentysomething clearly ready for the arrival of rock 'n' roll, Carson just happened to live in the same Atlanta rooming house and contradicts Randy's sob stories. Lily Dale refuses to admit that Randy's taking advantage of her, in the name of maintaining a connection to her late son. Will explodes with rage at the discovery that Lily Dale has been giving Randy money behind his back, precipitating marital, financial and health crises in their sprawling new house.

Key and Hammock give warm, credible performances as a long-married couple at odds. One suspects that the Kidders avoid talking about Randy, their son's death or their finances lest they expose deep rifts in their marriage. Hammock doesn't oversell her role's naïveté or religious faith and makes Lily Dale seem lovelorn, instead of a dupe. Key so naturally conveys up-from-the-bootstraps confidence that Will's downfall seems that much more precipitous. Critics have compared the role to Arthur Miller's Willy Loman — the two basically have the same first name. And Will shares Willy's heartbreak at becoming obsolete.

The Kidders have a running argument over whether Houston's African-American maids organized "disappointment clubs" to abandon their white employers during World War II, so the word "disappointment" hangs over the action. Foote presents the positive (if not overly idealistic) aspects of Southern race relations with "the help," particularly when their old housekeeper (Donna Biscoe) visits to evoke better times in a bittersweet grace note. Perhaps if you know the Orphan's Home plays (which I don't), such moments evoke the richness of personal history even more deeply. Nevertheless, too much of the play relies on characters lengthily recounting conversations with other people, so the drama feels removed.

Some suspense develops over whether we'll even see Randy, a mysterious, beseeching figure who could be the ghost of the Kidder's son. As Randy's place of origin, Atlanta comes across as an enigmatic, vaguely sinister metropolis, as well as Houston's longtime rival. Atlantans in the audience will chuckle at the ominous treatment of their home city, but may blink back a tear at Will Kidder's American tragedy.

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