Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 14, 2009

Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
in repertory through October 23, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

Superb! The Hartford Stage world premiere of Horton Foote's "The Orphans' Home Cycle" - Part One, "The Story of a Childhood" - foretells that Parts Two ("...Marriage") and Three (..."Family") will build and deepen the compelling story of Horace's journey from ages 12 (1902) to 38 (1928).

This elaborate production prompts superlatives. A cast of 22 playing 70 roles wears authentic period costumes (David C. Woolard), hair and wigs (Mark Adam Rampmeyer). Subtle lighting design (Rui Rita) enhances the many scenes which dissolve seamlessly thanks to the engineering legerdemain of scenic designers Jeff Cowie and David Barber: huge flats glide sideways and props move forward and back - where stood a boy, now stands a man.

Responsibility for this dramatic tour de force belongs to Artistic Director Michael Wilson. He convinced the aging playwright that the full nine-play cycle Foote had hoped to turn into nine movies (he and his wife succeeded in bringing five to the screen).could be staged in repertory. "The Cycle" is co-produced with New York's Signature Theatre Company where it will play from November to March.

Horton Foote's scripts suggest that he was light years distant from being pretentious. A gifted storyteller who eschewed any tricks, especially maudlin sentimentality, his characters are multi-dimensional; identification with their human nature explains one aspect of Foote's popularity. Another is quite simple: the man could really write.

Act I ("Roots in a Parched Ground" about 60 miles SW of Houston) opens with the dying of Horace's father whose excessive drinking alienated his wife. She marries Mr. Davenport who doesn't drink, smoke, or chew. "He has no problems," she states, except he's a dry drunk with profound control issues. Mr. Davenport's job transfer to Houston includes Horace's mother and sister but young Horace is left behind. In effect, he's an orphan. By Act II, age 14, ("Convicts") he's clerking in a scruffy store on a hardscrabble sugar cane plantation owned by an alcoholic skinflint who uses cheap convict labor. By Act III ("Lily Dale"), Horace is 20. A short visit in Houston with his uneasy mother and self-centered sister is prolonged when he is stricken with malaria. When he leaves, he's still weak but resolved to succeed.

The casting is inspired: Bill Heck (adult Horace), Henry Hodges (Horace, age 14); James DeMarse (plantation drunk), Annalee Jefferies (Horace's mother), and Pamela Payton-Wright (Mrs. Coons) who gives new meaning to "church lady." Michael Wilson's directing reflects the gentle yet precise cadence of Horton Foote's script. The result is immersion in Horace's odyssey - Greek tragedy, Texas style, never hurried, never drags.

Because scheduling of this three-part cycle is complex, theatergoers are encouraged to visit for ticketing information. Each three-hour performance includes three short plays and two intermissions.