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Horton Foote's Young Man from Atlanta makes a memorable trip to Houston

Whenever I see a play or movie written by Horton Foote, I think I should be sitting on a rustic front porch. Foote grew up an hour's drive southwest of Houston in the farming town of Wharton and, at age 79, this fifth-generation Texan still spends half the year there, in the house in which he was raised. From The Trip to Bountiful to The Roads to Home, Foote is steeped in his sense of place, in the ebb and flow of silence in conversation, the adherence to and cracks within proprieties, the love and loss and conflict and courage that make the ordinary extraordinary.

That sense of place is seen to good effect in The Young Man from Atlanta, which won Foote a Pulitzer last year. Young Man was premiered at New York's Signature Theatre Company, but because of a limited run and a limited seating capacity, only 1,700 people saw the show. Now, a larger production has been put together by the Alley and Boston's Huntington Theater, where the play was performed last fall. The director, the leads, all but one of the supporting cast and the set designer have all been retained from the original production; it's a meticulous, bittersweet import.

Though many of Foote's plays are set in rural Wharton, which he fictionalizes under the name of Harrison, Young Man is set in Houston, circa 1950. The primary characters are Will and Lily Dale Kidder, an affluent couple in their early sixties. A self-described "born competitor," Will has put 40 years into a successful produce business. Will is the type of self-made man who wants the biggest and the best of everything, and as the play begins, he's just built a new, $200,000 house. Determinedly optimistic, he's not only Houston proud, he's Will proud. Lily Dale, who calls her husband "Daddy," is the type of genteel Southern wife who dresses smartly because she knows it's expected of her. Deferential and sincere, she's grateful for what being a showpiece has given her, and her awareness of her station has made her fastidious.

But there's a pall over the household. The times are passing Will by; fresh outlooks are thought to be in order, and he's suddenly fired from his job. Like many aging men of self-reliance, Will has trouble accepting his lot, and it puts a strain on his marriage.

It's at this time that the title character arrives. Remaining off-stage, but still having a palpable presence, the young man from Atlanta has come seeking a job. Why he searches out Will and Lily Dale for aid in finding employment has to do with their only child, Bill, who has recently died. Bill, we learn, had also been living in Atlanta. During a business trip to Florida, he had pulled his car over to the side of the road, gone for a swim in a lake and drowned. Will and Lily Dale are haunted by his death. It seems Bill didn't know how to swim. So was his death a suicide, as Will fears, or some horrible accident, as Lily Dale believes? It's not an issue they really want to discuss; they didn't truly know their son and don't want to probe why that was, or who he was. The young man from Atlanta was Bill's boarding house roommate; we're told he's been so overcome by Bill's death that he hasn't been able to work since.

Or has he? Another male character, who may or may not have been jealous of the young man's friendship with Bill, says the Atlanta visitor is a hustler. And even though Will has forbidden Lily Dale any dealings with the young man, Lily Dale feels compelled to not only meet with him, but also to give him money to get himself back on his feet. She doles out $35,000 to hear the young man console her with the perhaps dubious revelation that her son had turned to prayer shortly before his death.

And what to make of the fact that Bill, ten years older than the young man, showered him with thousands of dollars that Will had given his struggling son as a nest egg? Or that, as Will recalls, the young man was so distraught at the funeral that he cried harder than Lily Dale? Homosexuality is never mentioned, but it hangs in the air. Bill, his parents regret, was no chip off the old block.

How Will and Lily Dale endure what's upset their equanimity is the core of Foote's moving, and sometimes surprisingly comic, play. None of the mysteries -- Bill's death; the nature of the relationship between him and the young man; the young man's motivations -- are solved. Instead, the play charts life's ambiguities, all the complicated, overlapping shadings that constitute individual and family identities. Though saddled with too much exposition in the beginning, and too much repetition throughout, Young Man comes alive because it's both tough and gentle, detached and involved. The characters, major and minor, on-stage and off, are all memorably drawn. Though the homoerotic subtext is atypical, Foote continues in Young Man what he's been humanely chronicling for decades: that transformation and survival are inextricably bound, even if all seems lost.

Ralph Waite, best known as John Walton of TV's The Waltons, is both hardy and heartbreaking as Will. Resolute and yet fearful of losing his spirit, Waite's Will doesn't want to give in to his feelings of rage and sorrow, but he can't help himself. Waite makes this paragon of sturdy, patriarchal stock straddle all that desperation entails.

As Lily Dale, Carlin Glynn -- whose career began at the Alley nearly 40 years ago -- effects a tone of melancholy loneliness so pervasive that, in her own way, the character matches her husband's sputtering strength. Insistent upon adhering to decorum, she nevertheless asserts herself, not so much wallowing in her neediness as laying claim to it. Glynn's Lily Dale isn't gullible when it comes to the youth from Atlanta; she's guileless when it comes to everything.

Director Peter Masterson, a favorite interpreter of Foote, knows how to get the proper inflection into Foote's deceptively simple idiom and how to elicit acting of intimate subtlety. He establishes tranquillity only to disrupt it, and then smoothes things out again before bringing on the next ripple. Helping Foote go beyond genre theater, he locates what's universal about the local; he's as honest, circumspect and compassionate in his direction as Foote is in his writing.

A word must be said about scenic designer E. David Cosier. His sparsely furnished living room of demure yellow walls and muted green floor suggests a decorous emptiness akin to that found in the characters. The stage is raked, reinforcing the steep climb the characters have to make at virtually every juncture. "There is," Will says at one point, "no finer house in Houston." For all involved at the Alley, how true.

The Young Man From Atlanta plays through March 16 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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