25 February 2010

'The Orphans’ Home Cycle': Background & Production History

My theater partner, Diana, and I subscribed to the Signature Theatre this season in order to see its monumental production effort, The Orphans’ Home Cycle. Horton Foote’s final project, OHC is a nine-play, three-part series that recounts the fictionalized story of his father and the three families that came together in the first quarter of the 20th century in and around the little town of Harrison, Texas (the stand-in in many of Foote’s plays for his hometown of Wharton). The production, a cooperative endeavor with Connecticut’s Hartford Stage which presented the series first, was scheduled so that each part opened separately about a month apart. Only once all three parts had opened were there days on which you could see the nine plays in order over three consecutive nights (plus a couple of marathon weekend performance lasting all day long). In the original schedule (the production has been extended at the Signature, amid talks of a Broadway transfer in the fall), there were only two such three-day stretches, both in February. One set of dates was Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 3, 4, and 5 February, and the other set was at the end of the month. Diana and I made our reservations for the early dates, but we made that schedule way back last summer and we didn’t get the actual paper tickets, so when I wrote the dates in my calendar, I wrote down the end-of-the-month set and went all fall thinking I had to wait until late February to see this production. I watched the reviews come out for each section, most of them more than enthusiastic. (Ben Brantley in the Times absolutely raved about the first two parts--his review of Part One said the cycle “promises to be the great adventure of this theater season”--though he cooled down to a mere boil for Part Three. Joe Dziemanowicz called OHC a “home run” in the Daily News.)

So on Wednesday night, 3 February, when I got a call from Diana at the theater wondering where I was, I was shocked. Of course, I went to see Parts Two and Three on the nights we’d scheduled, but I had to see Part One out of order on Tuesday, 9 February. I’m a little disappointed not to have seen the plays, which take place chronologically, in order, but to be frank, it’s not a vital consideration--especially since I managed to get to Part One so quickly. (9 February was the first presentation of Part One after the one I’d missed.)

To be honest, I don’t really know how to approach this report. OHC is more than just a play; it’s even more than three plays--or nine plays. I hate to use the expression because it’s such a public-relations cliché, but it’s an event. Aside from whatever artistic accomplishment it represents or what it shows about Horton Foote and his life’s work, OHC is an immense logistical achievement. So let me start with a little production history/background and see where that leads.

To start with, the plays tell the story of Foote’s father (Albert Horton Foote, Sr.--the playwright is actually Albert Horton Foote, Jr.), here called Horace Robedaux. The cycle spans the years 1902 through 1928, from the death of Horace’s father, Paul Horace Robedaux (the stand-in for Foote’s paternal grandfather, Albert Foote), to the death of his wife’s father, Henry Vaughn, and relates the interconnected lives of the Robedaux family, the Vaughns, and the Thorntons (the fictional counterpart to Foote’s paternal grandmother’s family). The family relationships are fairly complicated, in great part because they all include extended family members such as first and second cousins (and at least one second cousin once removed); one of the plays, Cousins (number eight in the series), is almost a litany of Horace’s relations by blood and by marriage. I imagine this was all part of Foote’s childhood world as most members of all the families stayed in or near Harrison/Wharton (where everyone knew everyone else anyway), so they all had contact with one another all the time and even often had influence. Keeping the relationships straight, a hard thing to do, is tremendously important for the members of Horace’s family, too. (Coincidentally, my mother and my aunt, her sister-in-law, went through a version of this family-tree inquiry last Thanksgiving in behalf of a cousin who, oddly, is related to me on both sides of my family. If you don’t think that’s confusing . . . .)

Foote actually started on the plays as early as 1960 when he wrote The Night of the Storm as a teleplay for the DuPont Show of the Month. (It aired on CBS in 1961.) Foote’s first attempt to tell his father’s story, it later became Roots in a Parched Ground, the first play in OHC. In 1974, on the advice of Stark Young, retired theater reviewer for the New Republic and Theatre Arts, Foote began writing the plays that would become the story of his father’s childhood and his courtship of and marriage to Foote’s mother, called Elizabeth Vaughn in the plays. By 1974, he’d written eight of the plays, starting with 1918 (the seventh play in the cycle); he added the ninth, The Widow Claire (the fourth play), in 1979. He gave the series the name Orphans’ Home Cycle from a line from “In Distrust of Merits,” a 1944 poem by Marianne Moore: “The world’s an orphans’ home.”

Between 1975 and 1980, Foote directed workshops of three of the plays, Courtship (1975), 1918 (1979), and Valentine’s Day (1980), at HB Playwrights Foundation in the West Village. (It was in those workshops that Foote’s daughter, Hallie, just starting out to be an actress, originated the role of Elizabeth Vaughn Robedaux, her fictionalized grandmother.) Foote also produced indie films of the three plays (which featured Hallie Foote and her brother, Horton, Jr., and sister, Daisy). Almost all the cycle plays saw productions on stage, film, or TV, including the 1991 feature film Convicts, starring Robert Duval, Lukas Haas, and James Earl Jones. Only Cousins hadn’t been presented before the Hartford staging. Although Foote conceived of the plays to stand on their own as individual productions, he did want to see them performed together. In 2007, Hartford Stage commissioned the playwright to adapt the scripts into a nine-play cycle of one-acts. In January 2009, New York City’s Signature Theatre Company joined with Hartford Stage to co-produce the three-part cycle. Foote completed drafts of all nine scripts just before his death at 92 on 4 March last year. Michael Wilson, the artistic director of Hartford Stage who’d staged several of Foote’s plays in the past, presented the series first in Connecticut, 27 August-17 October 2009; the Signature productions, at the Peter Norton Space on far West 42nd Street, began previews on 29 October 2009 with Part One opening on 19 November, Part Two on 17 December, and Part Three on 26 January 2010. (In January, the Signature Theatre also announced the extension of the OHC production, originally scheduled to end on 6 March, through 8 May. Around the same time, director Michael Wilson and producer Daryl Roth disclosed plans for a Broadway transfer in the fall.)

(Wilson and James Houghton, artistic director of the Signature, have also announced that they’ve nominated OHC for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. The plays have been published by Grove Press, although considering the publication dates, the texts are not the same as the edited versions that form the cycle presented in Hartford and New York, on which Foote was still working when he died last year. The plays are published in the same order and in three volumes, but they’re not divided up the same way as the production: Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, Lily Dale, and The Widow Claire came out in 1988; Courtship, Valentine’s Day, and 1918 were released in 1987; and Cousins and The Death of Papa were published in 1989. There are also other editions of some of the texts, and my guess is that the plays will become staples in acting classes and directing programs for years to come.)

Altogether, the plays cover 26 years and include 67 roles (including characters like Horace Robedaux at different ages), played by 22 actors. Many of the cast appear as several different characters; others play the same person at different stages of his or her life--a number actually do both, like James DeMarse who plays plantation overseer Soll Gautier in Convicts and then appears as Henry Vaughn, Horace Robedaux’s father-in-law, from 1916 through his death in 1928. Bill Heck is first seen as Paul Horace Robedaux, Horace’s father, in Roots in a Parched Ground and then as Horace from age 20 through 38. (Two other young actors play Horace at ages 12 and 14.) Each play is set not only in a different year, but a different place and many have multiple locations, so there are literally dozens of sets. As the play moves from 1902, barely into the 20th century, to 1928, just before the Wall Street crash and with World War II on the horizon, the clothing of the characters keeps pace with the changing fashions of the day. There must be scores of costumes, especially women’s dresses, as well as accessories, hand props, and wigs. I’ve never been backstage at the Peter Norton Space, but I can only imagine that the Off-Broadway theater is a rabbit warren of set pieces, costume racks, prop tables, and actors behind the scenes. There are days, all Saturdays, when the theater runs all three parts in one day, the sections starting at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 8 p.m. That means the cast is on stage, with a one-hour afternoon break and then a two-hour evening one, for 12 hours. (In Hartford, the theater arranged for breaks and meals at a hotel near the theater. I don’t know what the Signature, which is located on 42nd Street all the way over near 11th Avenue, has set up. I’ve done two shows in a day, but never three and never different plays. Still, I know from experience that getting out of the theater building even for just a few moments can be very refreshing psychologically--it cleared the cotton clogging my head.)

So, that addresses the “event” aspects of this production. I have to say that I can’t imagine how a commercial producer plans to approach this for the proposed Broadway transfer next fall. (The original announcement was for an immediate shift into the Neil Simon Theatre for a limited run after the current engagement ends this spring. Wilson, Roth, and Houghton quickly realized that that couldn’t work because of the logistics of the move. They cited considerations of marketing the commercial production that would require more time to put into action. As commentators have remarked, this isn’t the usual Broadway fare. Two recent multi-play productions on Broadway, the Neil Simon Plays (Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound) and Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests both closed without recouping their investments. The Simon Plays did so poorly at the box office that they didn’t even complete the rep pairing, closing BBM early without even opening BB. Some analysis of Norman indicated that tickets sold inconsistently because potential spectators weren’t sure whether or not they had to see all three plays or whether the order in which they were viewed made any difference. OHC could run into some of that same confusion. To start with, it’s not only nine plays over three evenings, probably already a hard sell, but each part takes three hours. That means either going late, which will discourage some suburban theatergoers, or starting early (as the Signature’s been doing), which could cramp the schedules of working spectators. Planning how to handle marathons interspersed among days when only one part of the trilogy is staged is another difficulty, and the producing consortium (which also includes Jeffrey Richards) will talk with the producers of The Norman Conquests and the recent Lincoln Center trilogy, Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, about how to handle this arrangement best. But in addition, OHC has all those sets, costumes, and props to juggle--and to pay for at Broadway contract rates. And let’s not forget that cast of 22, immense for a Broadway house, especially in the current economy. (Houghton says that raising the money for the transfer has not been a problem so far.) Furthermore, there’s nary a big name in the cast. (Hallie Foote, a Tony nominee for Dividing the Estate last year, is the only actor in OHC whose name, aside from her late father’s, someone outside the theater might recognize, and she’s hardly a star.) Now, I’m not disparaging the work of any of these people--they’ve formed an excellent ensemble in all respects--but as we’ve seen over the past few years, non-musical commercial productions, especially dramas, need star names to succeed on Broadway. However deplorable that situation is, it seems to be a fact. Analysts blame the lack of stars for the failure of the Simon Plays and the lackluster performance of Norman despite good reviews. (In my opinion, it would be awful if the producers replaced any actors with stars to sell OHC, though that could happen.) Now, I’m not at all saying that this transfer shouldn’t happen--or that, if it does, it can’t succeed. I’m just wondering out loud if it can work--though I applaud the impulse to try it.

When I mentioned my reservations about the commercial venture, my subscription partner, Diana, offered that the cycle might make a good movie--or, better, a television series. She may be right, too. It’s a little like Roots on a more limited basis, or, as Diana suggested, The Forsyte Saga. In fact, PBS has occasionally produced American stories, and maybe a Texas miniseries would work on non-commercial TV better than on a commercial stage. After all, it’s almost perfect for the medium as it is--each play, an episode, is already an hour long. Subtract the few minutes accumulated for set shifts that wouldn’t be needed in a taped series, and you have room for the credits and the intro. (In 1987, The Story of a Marriage, comprised of Courtship, On Valentine's Day, and 1918, appeared on PBS’s American Playhouse as a five-part mini-series. This shouldn’t be a deterrent, however, because PBS has aired remakes in the past. The aforementioned Forsyte Saga first showed up in 1969 and then in a new version in 2002.)

The Hartford and Signature production of OHC is one of the first--perhaps even the first--première or major production of any of Foote’s plays at which he wasn’t present in the rehearsal room. Both Signature, which has produced Foote’s plays over many seasons, including one devoted to his works, and Hartford, where Michael Wilson has staged several Foote scripts over his career, have counted Horton Foote as a valued friend for many years. When Wilson approached Foote to prepare the nine plays for presentation as a unified cycle, I’m sure the director, and later Houghton of Signature, figured the playwright would be around to dispense his advice, wisdom, and intimate knowledge. When Foote died (in Hartford, where he’d been working on the scripts) before the plays could even go into rehearsal starting last July, the post of informed insider fell to actor Hallie Foote, Horton’s daughter and, for several decades now, his most inspired interpreter. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like for her to work on these plays. The actress has played a character based on her own grandmother when she originated the role of Elizabeth Vaughn Robedaux in the HB Playwrights showcases of three of the cycle plays (directed by her father). In the current production, she plays her maternal great-grandmother, Mary Vaughn; her paternal great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Hill Robedaux; and her great-great aunt, Asa Gautier Vaughn. Hallie Foote said that she knew her actual paternal grandmother, Harriet Brooks Foote (called “Hallie,” too), but “never knew her as a young girl,” and even knew her great-grandmother slightly. But she would have grown up with her father’s stories of his family as well as the tales from other relatives. (One of the things apparent about the Robedauxs-Thorntons-Vaughns in Foote’s plays is that they all stuck close to Harrison, so they were always around to talk. If the Footes-Hortons-Brookses in Wharton were anything like their fictionalized avatars, they did, too.) What must it be like to play characters based on members of your own family like that? To be a member of a cast, one of 22, but also the authority on the real-life basis for the plots, characters, and settings? I can’t begin to imagine that.

I guess it’s time now for a plot summary and episode breakdown. I’ll be as succinct as I can.

Part One: The Story of a Childhood: In Act I, Roots in a Parched Ground (1902-03 in Harrison, Texas), 12-year-old Horace Robedaux’s father, a once-prominent lawyer, is dying of drink and dissolution. Horace shuttles back and forth between the house of his father’s mother, where Paul Horace lies near death, and that of his mother’s mother, where the Thornton family sits singing to guitar music; he doesn’t quite belong anywhere. His mother, Corella, separated from Paul Horace, decides to take the boy’s younger sister, Lily Dale, to Houston, where she’d been working as a seamstress. Horace is left behind in Harrison with the feuding Robedauxs and Thorntons because Corella’s new husband-to-be, Pete Davenport, doesn’t want him. The boy stays with his mother’s family, quits school, and sets out to find a job so he can earn enough money to put a tombstone on his father’s grave. Act II, Convicts (1904 in Floyd’s Lane, Texas), opens on Christmas Eve and Horace, now 14, has taken a job clerking at the store on Soll Gautier's plantation. Gautier, an alcoholic and deranged Confederate vet, uses convict labor to replace the slaves he lost after Emancipation and while Horace is there, he witnesses the convicts’ harsh treatment. He sees the shooting death of one convict, the death from untended illness of another, and finally, the death of Gautier himself. Act III, Lily Dale (1910 in Houston), has 20-year-old Horace making a rare visit to his mother and sister. Corella Davenport has sent Horace the train fare to Houston when she believes her husband will be in Atlanta a week on family business, but they are all surprised when Davenport returns early and finds Horace in the home. Horace's presence stirs up difficult feelings for his mother and sister and Corella tries to reconcile her children and their stepfather, who is also angry with Lily Dale because she’s been seeing Will Kidder, a man he doesn’t like. (Davenport relents and even gets Kidder, whom Lily Dale eventually marries, a job at the rail yard where he works.) At the end of Horace’s aborted visit, he collapses, ill with malaria (a recurring problem in southeast Texas at the time). Even Davenport won’t turn a sick man out, and Horace spends days in delirium on the Davenport’s living room sofa, recovering from his near-fatal illness. While he was ill, Horace learns when he awakens, the store near Harrison where he clerks has burned to the ground, leaving him without a job to return to even as his family sends him off on his own again.

Part Two: The Story of a Marriage: Act I, The Widow Claire (1912 in Harrison), opens on the night before Horace leaves Harrison for business school in Houston. He calls on the widow Claire Ratliff. Over the course of the evening he becomes further entangled in the lives of Claire and her young children. The young man treads back and forth between his boardinghouse, where his roommates are out carousing and playing poker, while Claire makes a decision about her future--whom she will marry. Once again, Horace shuttles between emblematic places--a potentially domestic, welcoming home with Claire and the temporary, rootless domain of gamblers, drinkers, and wastrels. Horace, having few prospects, is left alone in the end. In Act II, Courtship (1916 in Harrison), Elizabeth Vaughn has been seeing Horace Robedaux against the wishes of her parents, especially her wealthy and prominent father, Henry, who thinks Horace is wild and irresponsible. While a dance is underway nearby--Mr. Vaughn doesn’t allow dancing in his family, though both his daughters have secretly learned how--Horace pays a visit and Elizabeth must make a choice between him and her family. She confides in her sister Laura that she will marry Horace if he asks her. Act III, Valentine's Day (1917 in Harrison), begins on Christmas Eve, and Horace and Elizabeth, living in a rented room, are planning for their future. Though Elizabeth, who has just given birth to their daughter, Jenny (named for her older sister who died in childhood), hasn’t seen her family since she and Horace eloped on Valentine’s Day, the couple get an unexpected visit from Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn, and the couple reconcile with her family. Meanwhile, Brother Vaughn, Elizabeth’s ne’er-do-well brother, is doing poorly at Texas A&M and has gotten into debt from gambling and, he confesses to his sister, he needs money to pay for an abortion for a girl he’s gotten pregnant. Mr. Vaughn finds himself drawn to the Robedauxs’ little home despite his original reservations about the match and he offers to buy the couple a house. Horace accepts the offer, but only if the house is put in Elizabeth’s name so he’s not seen to have married her for a house.

Part Three: The Story of a Family: Act I, 1918 (1918 in Harrison), opens as the Spanish Flu pandemic strikes Harrison and the Robedaux family is hit particularly hard. Several family members have died from the illness and even Horace is stricken. While he’s ill, Elizabeth catches the flu, too, and is unable to nurse her gravely ill husband. Tragically, baby Jenny doesn’t survive the epidemic--a fact which Horace doesn’t know until Elizabeth tells him after his recovery. She also informs him that she’s expecting another child. World War I is raging in France, and Brother Vaughn wants very badly to join the troops but his father won’t let him enlist until he’s 18. The Armistice occurs near the end of the act as Harrison celebrates with parades and speeches; Mr. Vaughn, as the town’s leading citizen, is urged to participate in the ceremonies. At the start of Act II, Cousins (1923 in Harrison and Houston), constant rain has been devastating the cotton and cane crops, ruining the economy of Harrison. Horace, who has just opened his own haberdashery shop, is losing business as potential customers economize on clothes and accessories; some days he makes less than a dollar’s worth of sales. Horace is called to Corella's hospital bedside in Houston when she faces another in a series of operations. There’s a kind of uneasy accommodation among Horace, Pete Davenport, and Will Kidder, as the Robedauxs, Thorntons, and their in-laws attempt to sort through their complex family trees. Kidder has become wealthy from oil speculation, an investment Horace had turned down as too risky; Kidder’s wife, Horace’s sister Lily Dale, remains as spoiled and self-centered as she was in childhood. The past haunts Horace’s cousin Minnie Robedaux Curtis and has a pull on Horace as well. In Act III, The Death of Papa (1928 in Harrison), the sudden death of Elizabeth's father sends the Vaughn and Robedaux households into a tailspin while Horace struggles to keep his store open and support his family. Mrs. Vaughn places Brother Vaughn in charge of her estate, but he succumbs to the temptations of drink and gambling again and nearly impoverishes his family. Mrs. Vaughn decides to leave Harrison. Horace and Elizabeth’s young son, Horace, Jr., has become a voracious reader, to the consternation of some of his kin, and demonstrates an insatiable curiosity about everything around him. This final act of OHC ends in hope, but without a clear prediction of what the future will bring. Unbeknownst to everyone, of course, is the looming Great Depression and, following that, the start of another world war. "Don't be too sure about anything, Big Horace,” warns Brother Vaughn portentously at the end. “Not about anything in this world."

(A sidelight about 1918, the first episode of Story of a Family: My father was born just under a week before the Armistice, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” Because that was in the midst of the flu contagion, Dad was born at home since hospitals were considered unsafe for pregnant women and babies because they were full of contagious influenza patients. This is irrelevant to OHC except that my link with this historical event always makes me take particular notice of stories with it as the background; Alice Childress’s Wedding Band is another play in which the epidemic figures.)

[In the second installment, to be posted in a few days, of my report, I’ll cover some of the themes I believe Foote was working on in OHC and make an evaluation of the performance and staging of the production.]

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