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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Poignant Production of Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children


Also see Richard's reviews of The Time of Your Life and A Man of No Importance

The Phoenix Theatre is currently staging Horton Foote's touching The Carpetbagger's Children at their theatre on the sixth floor of 414 Mason Street, San Francisco. Directed by the former artistic director of the American Music Theatre of San Jose, this show features Katherine Austin-Groen, Linda Ayes Frederick and Gretchen Grant, three veteran wonderful actresses. This is 90 minutes of interwoven memory monologues as three sisters recall the era when their father, a real carpetbagger and Union soldier, moved to Texas after the Civil War to make his fortune. He was able to amass a 20,000 acre Texas plantation by becoming the County Treasurer and Tax Collector and "stealing" the precious cotton fields from the defeated enemy. He also feared letting his children marry since he did not want the estate to fell into anyone else's hands.

Horton Foote's oral history made the rounds at three major regional theaters (Houston's Alley, Minneapolis's Guthrie and Hartford Stage) before coming to the Lincoln Center Newhouse Theatre in 2002. The New Yorker reviewer called the play "theatrically daring and a rhapsody of ambivalence in its modest, garrulous way." The run in New York was so popular that it extended and won the 2002 American Theatre Critic/Steinberg New Play Award that year. The West Coast premiere occurred at the prestigious South Coast Rep in January 2003. This marks the Northern California premiere of the bittersweet play.

Three remaining Thompson sisters, Cornelia (Gretchen Grant), Grace (Linda Ayres-Frederick) and Sissie (Katherine Austin-Groen) relive the family's history in the small Texas town. The scenes are straightforward and the three sisters sit separately in different sections of the small three-sided playing area. There is very little interaction among the three actresses as each character tells her own story of events in the family history. Sometimes we get a slightly different view of a single event from different sisters.

Cornelia becomes the head of the family after the father dies. She maintains the ledger books and talks wistfully about a deceased young sister Beth who was Papa's favorite. We hear of their brother's poor business dealings and how he failed in each line of business, of Grace who ran away and married a "no gooder" against the wishes of the family. She also became the "poor" sister of the three because she signed off on the estate. We hear about Sissie, the baby sister of the family, who is sweet, sensitive and innocent and who has lovely songbird voice and must always sing "The clanging bells of time" to the mother who suffers from Alzheimer's. We hear of the squabbles, swindles and misfortunes of the family all the way up to the second World War.

The actresses give heartfelt and warm performances. Gretchen Grant gives a strong performance as the head of a household who falls prey to an insurance swindle brought on by her very close male friend. Her performance is stoic as she watches the changes that occur in the small Texas town over the century. Linda Ayres-Frederick plays the outcast sister with a mischievous delight while Katherine Austin-Groen is delightful as the sweet and somewhat na´ve sister.

Horton Foote's elegant blend of poignancy and charming humor is very much in evidence in this lovely play. Director Dianna Shulster has done a fine job in using the small three sided stage to present this beautiful reminiscences of the family.

The Carpetbagger's Daughters runs through April 17th at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, 6th floor, San Francisco. Call 415-989-0023 for reservations and the tickets will be held at the door or go to TIX located in Union Square for that night or advance tickets.

Coming next is The Drama Mamas Stretchmarks opening on April 29th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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