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The Orphan's Home Cycle (Part 1)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jenny Dare Paulin and Bill Heck.
Photo by Gregory Constanzo.

As good a playwright as Horton Foote was, it's never been tempting to place him in the same vaunted category as the likes of Eugene O'Neill and Tom Stoppard. Foote's gentle, down-home view of the world, usually centered on the so-mythical-it's-real Harrison, Texas, seemed the antithesis of the all-consuming size the works of those playwrights represented. But with The Orphans' Home Cycle, that perspective may need immediate and total reconsideration.

The Signature Theatre Company, in association with Hartford Stage, is producing Foote's entire nine-hour opus this season. Based on the first part alone, which just opened at Peter Norton Space, this could be the event of the season. But more than that, it could well become another grand theatrical epic, in line with O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra or Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, but based on places, people, and feelings that don't draw their inspiration from Greek tragedy or 19th-century European politics, but instead from the very fabric of America.

Granted, it's hard to tell from just the initial evening of three plays, given the umbrella title "The Story of a Childhood," the specific direction in which all this is going. Director Michael Wilson, who's helmed more than his share of Foote (including the recent Dividing the Estate), makes it clear from the opening scenes that this will likely be another hushed examination of Southern life that blends comedy, tragedy, and honesty in equal measure. Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber's set, David C. Woolard's unassuming costumes, and Rui Rita's dusty lights project the period in smoothly melting sepia tones and, like most contemporary trappings, offer few hints at the future.

All this is already typical Foote, living in its time and its place so completely that you can't help but be drawn in as well. What's clear about where you and where you're going is that Horace Robedaux will be at the center of it. As a young boy, he survives his father's death and his mother and sister's abandonment, and grows up to be a man still coping with those losses. He's left on his own in Harrison in the first play, "Roots in a Parched Ground"; attempts to make his fortune as an adolescent on a convict-laden plantation in "Convicts"; and learns at age 20, upon reuniting with his mother and sister in "Lily Dale," that he can't go home again.

As Horace's story unfolds, the depth and insight of Foote's milieu - and its potential when spread across the better part of three decades - reveal and distinguish themselves. The problems of Horace and his family, though small in the grand scheme of things, read large for the reason similar trials in Foote plays so often do: they intimately treat the experiences and fears with which we all grapple. Over the eight years we spend with him here (1902-1910), Horace faces death, abandonment, poverty, and rejection, each new adversity real not because of what's said - but because of what isn't.

This is most evident in "Lily Dale," where an ill Horace faces off against his stepfather, Pete, who's never much liked him, but whose behavior has gradually infected both Horace's wife and sister. Pete doesn't explicitly state his objections to Horace, but makes it known just the same that women are to be cared for and men are to be left to fend for themselves; the tension between the two propels Horace into a new world that he'll shape based on his own views of masculinity, and which could have repercussions he doesn't expect.

Horace, however, faces ghosts in all three chapters. The most prominent is perhaps in the first: Horace's father wanted his son to be a lawyer and went to significant lengths in order to ensure it would happen. But for some of the characters in "Convicts," the Civil War never ended and is still shaping the land around them - even though it, ultimately, is in charge of its human inhabitants and not the other way around. The evolution of Horace from boy to man across these events is thoughtful and moving, evoking both the expectations of the time and the six plays still to come.

As a result, "The Story of a Childhood" can often seem more like a promise than a delivery, background information for the more probing visions of the past to come. The first and third plays are captivating because of their devotion to family drama, but the second is a rocky digression that - at least at this point - seems necessary more for thematic than plot reasons. Each segment sort of stands alone, but you can't - and shouldn't - expect all the answers yet. This does, admittedly, have the potential to frustrate theatregoers who prefer quick fixes of theatrical intensity.

But don't let that deter you. There's plenty of excitement to be found in the performances, from Foote's finest interpreter, daughter Hallie, forcefully astringent turns as Horace's grandmother and the plantation's matriarch; Devon Abner, as the young Horace's protector and the older Horace's tormenter; James DeMarse as a wistfully absurd oldest living Confederate veteran telling all; and Georgi James and Jenny Dare Paulin playing Horace's demanding (and sometimes accepting) sister Lily Dale at both ages of the age spectrum. Wilson has ensured their styles, voices, and trajectories are all properly balanced.

As for Horace, he's beautifully embodied at three different ages by Dylan Riley Snyder, Henry Hodges, and Bill Heck, in a deeply effective triple play that shows not how much we change while growing up - but how much we don't. Each actor presents a young man who's struggling to find his way out of the uncertainty in which he's mired, using whatever tools he may have acquired along the way.

In each play, Horace gets lost and is sometimes found again, but always leaves us with the final vision of someone who's determined to press on at any cost. Twice we see Horace tapping his hat as he begins his newest journey to - where? Most of the time, he doesn't know. Neither do we. But if the rest of The Orphans' Home Cycle lives up to this first installment, it will be a true joy discovering the answer over the next few months.

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

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