Foote and Mouth Disease

Known for his quiet explorations of small-town Southern life, Horton Foote is one of America's preeminent living playwrights. He won his first major award in 1962 when he took home an Oscar for his screenplay of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Twenty-one years later, he copped a second Academy Award for his original script Tender Mercies. Then in 1995 the Wharton native won a Pulitzer for The Young Man from Atlanta. It was thus no small event when Foote premiered The Carpetbagger's Children at the Alley Theatre two nights before the deluge.

That Jean Stapleton (Edith in All in the Family) would star on the intimate Neuhaus Arena stage under the direction of the revered Michael Wilson (former associate artistic director at the Alley and now artistic director of Connecticut's well-respected Hartford Stage) only added to the opening-night exuberance. Theatrical magic seemed moments away when the entire audience shifted forward in their velvet seats as the houselights dimmed.

Unfortunately, this tepid 90-minute memory play is not likely to inspire more than a long, wide yawn. For though it is filled with eccentric Southern characters and homey details, this terrain is as familiar as your own backyard.

Inspired in part by Chekhov's Three Sisters, and told in a series of monologues, Foote's script chronicles the lives of three Southern women, all daughters of a Union soldier who came to Texas during the Civil War. The powerful patriarch, sent south to evaluate property, grabbed 20,000 acres of cheap land from the broken farmers before reconstruction was over, turning himself into one of the richest and least-liked men in the area. The surviving daughters' stories are shadowed by the loneliness that their imperious father cast over their lives as he built his tiny kingdom.

Loneliness and familial estrangement are constant themes in Foote's work. But since every tale in The Carpetbagger's Children is told long after the fact, as a vapory memory, the sisters seem to have few, if any, immediate problems. They do appear to suffer from endless ennui caused by their overbearing father, who continues to rule the roost even from the grave. Apparently he thought of his children like property -- just as he didn't want his 20,000 acres separated, he didn't want his daughters to marry.

For some reason, each feels compelled to reveal her family's history, which unspools in long speeches filled with endless details. Each woman sweeps into the spotlight where she prattles along about Mama and Papa and cake and lemonade. Sissie (Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter), otherwise known as "the baby," tells about how many times Mama asked her to sing hymns for the gentlemen callers. Grace Anne (Stapleton) goes on and on about the "colored" dressmakers she can't afford since Papa disinherited her for marrying that good-for-nothing Jackson LeGrande. And Cornelia (Roberta Maxwell), the sensible daughter who holds the estate together, is left to tell the family's dreary background story, including everything about iron-fisted Papa and his only friend, Colonel Hawkins, a Confederate soldier who lived next door.

Foote, whose detail-rich writing has been compared to Chekhov's, is known for his ability to tilt the exquisite light of poetry onto the dull detritus of workaday life. But the details in The Carpetbagger's Children are as hackneyed as the names of the characters who relate them. Everything from the fried-chicken dinners to the scheming lover who calls himself an "insurance salesman" to an angelic dead sister who was "beautiful as she was stylish" sounds as though it were pinched from a movie of the week.

The solitary spotlights and the lonely monologues are clearly designed to underscore each sister's alienation. But in the end, these speeches only undermine the dramatic potential of the story. All three actors are on stage during the performance. While one stands in the light and speaks, the others sit in their assigned corners, in the dark. Cornelia talks first, explaining how her father arrived in their little town and how he came to build his fortune. You wait for all this introductory information to finish so that the real story can begin. Soon enough, however, you realize that the story is all memory and information, and that none of these performers will break out of the tight confines of their monologues. This becomes especially frustrating late in the show when two or three brief but wonderfully fiery exchanges occur, revealing how much potential energy exists among these deeply talented performers.

The script constricts the women. And director Wilson appears to have left them to their own devices. They have little to do but walk around a table that sits center stage and speak to the audience. Occasionally they examine an old photograph, but mostly they wring their hands and circle the stage.

Many of Foote's portraits of 20th-century Southern life are magical. Out of the ordinariness of a slamming screen door and an afternoon cup of coffee, he has summoned the depth of feeling that anyone who goes to the theater longs to experience. But The Carpetbagger's Children fails to cast a spell.

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Lee Williams