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The Orphan's Home Cycle (Part 3)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Orphan's Home Cycle (Part 3)
Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey.
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

The defining moment of Horton Foote’s nine-part, nine-hour magnum opus The Orphans’ Home Cycle - and perhaps of the entire Foote oeuvre - occurs smack dab in the middle of its final installment, Part 3: The Story of a Family, which just opened at Peter Norton Space. Though the expansive Signature Theatre Company and Hartford Stage coproduction has already taught you to expect anything, nothing has quite prepared you for this.

It’s a play called “Cousins,” and it’s a surprise lark within the heavy-lifting story of Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck), who lost his father at age 12, was abandoned by his mother and sister in favor of a new marriage soon after, and has spent his life trying to reacquire the love and family he’s never known. Yet in “Cousins,” the second of the three one-acts at the tail end of Foote’s trilogy of trilogies, he comes to realize that his support system is bigger than he ever suspected. Everyone in his life, it seems, is related to him in some way, as well as related to each other - if sometimes once or twice removed. Horace has battled poverty, illness, and acidic preconceptions, but never strayed far from his blood which, like him, courses through his hometown of Harrison, Texas.

Though obsessed with comic connections between people who may not realize or remember they’re kin, “Cousins” states explicitly what Foote spent his six-decade career implying in almost everything he wrote: You can never can, and never should, escape who you really are. The Orphans’ Home Cycle, which to this point has concerned itself almost entirely with Horace’s attempts to discover who he is and who he should be, takes on a startling new dimension as he learns that he has, in fact, always known. For him, for his family both immediate and extended, and for Harrison, that changes everything.

So, sadly, does Part 3 as a whole. If “Cousins” fixes the thematic point of the epic, neither it nor its companion plays ultimately contribute as much, as deeply, as those in the preceding two evenings. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t see Part 3 if you’ve already devoted six hours to Parts 1 and 2 - you should. Nor is it to say that Part 3 isn’t basically satisfying - it is. But the payoff is not quite the equal of the investment, and if Parts 1 and 2 spanned the quality gamut from “amazing” to “otherworldly,” Part 3 must content itself with a solid, earthly, qualifier-free “good.”

The Orphan's Home Cycle (Part 3)
Hallie Foote.
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

Part of the discrepancy results from an overall change of velocity. Whereas the previous entries pushed steadily forward on their road, Part 3 is a collection of uneasy, plot-related detours. “Cousins” is by far the lightest of all nine plays, but is almost blinding compared to the ones that bookend it here. “1918” contrasts the destructive qualities of that year’s catastrophic flu pandemic with those of the rapidly waning World War I. In “The Death of Papa,” Horace must help his wife Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey) and mother-in-law (Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter) cope with losing their father and husband (James DeMarse), a banker who changed the life of everyone he met.

But because who will die from the flu and who won’t is never in doubt, “1918” becomes notable only for tying up one of The Orphans’ Home Cycle’s longest-running plot threads: Horace’s lifelong quest to adorn his father’s grave with a tombstone. And certain parts of “The Death of Papa” are powerful, echoing most directly Foote’s later and most regretful works (most notably Dividing the Estate) about the vanishing Texas landscape, but most of its concerns feel oddly small for the crowning segment of an undertaking practically unparalleled in American theatre.

This wasn’t the case with Eugene O’Neill’s more titanic plays, or even Tom Stoppard’s own nine-hour sprawler, The Coast of Utopia. But those were written as complete works, not cobbled together from nine full-length plays destined to be cut down to tell a single man’s story. Part 3 is the first evening in which the compression is less than absolutely seamless, and stitches threaten to pop throughout - especially in “1918,” which packs too many deaths, trips, and treaties into far too short a time. Other issues - including a strange overall change of focus from Horace to Elizabeth’s brother (Bryce Pinkham), a wastrel who keeps trying and failing to make good; and Mr. Vaughn’s relative absence in “Cousins,” which defangs “The Death of Papa” - prevent Part 3 from going out with the Big Bang that would seem a requirement.

Part 3 also does not represent director Michael Wilson’s best work. He has staged some charming moments, particularly at the end of “1918” and “Cousins,” but otherwise rarely elevates the proceedings to the juicy emotional heights he did in the previous collections. Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber’s plentiful sets, David C. Woolard’s lovely costumes, Rui Rita’s knowing lighting, and John Gromada’s music and sound design are as effective as ever, but seem to carry the action now far more than they had to in the past.

The Orphan's Home Cycle (Part 3)
Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey, Hallie Foote, Dylan Riley Snyder and Bryce Pinkham.
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

The performances, at least, remain above reproach. Heck is excellent as the secure but stumbling Horace, trying to hone the dignity he’s at last acquired; and Lacey remains a homey delight as the fearless Elizabeth. Hallie lives up to her father’s writing and her own memorable performances in his works, presenting a touching portrait of a woman watching the disintegration of the way of life she helped establish. DeMarse and Pinkham are likewise terrific as two very different Vaughns, and Annalee Jefferies brings the right hint of loving, unintentional cruelty to Horace’s mother.

Special note must also be made of Dylan Riley Snyder. He played Horace at his youngest in the very first play, “Roots in a Parched Ground,” and returns in “The Death of Papa” as Horace’s own son Horace, Jr. But he’s actually tackling a still greater role: Horton Foote himself. The playwright, who passed away last year, conceived all nine plays as a theatrical ode to his father, so his own presence in them at the very end was perhaps unavoidable. And as the younger Horace’s family chides him for spending all his time reading books, you can’t help but think exactly where a life devoted to words can get you.

Yes, one of the stumbling blocks of “The Death of Papa” is that the uneven dual focuses on Horace and his son prevent the precise passing of the torch that’s been presaged almost from the very first play. But Foote’s pseudonymous presence is a reminder of the lasting power of the full work. If Part 3 is in many ways just as troubled as the two Horaces, it can’t stop The Orphans’ Home Cycle from being an unforgettable achievement and a moving tribute to the unparalleled artist and American that was, and always will be, Horton Foote.


The Orphan's Home Cycle
Through March 28
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Signature Theatre Company