28 February 2010

'The Orphans’ Home Cycle': Themes & Performance

[In the first installment of my report on the Signature Theatre’s production of OHC, I discussed the background of Foote’s composition of the plays that became the cycle and some of the history of the première production. In the second installment, I’ll comment on some of the themes that I believe Foote was working on and evaluate the performance and staging of the production.]

Before I venture into my attempt to evaluate the production, let me make a few remarks about what I think Foote was up to. Unlike Morris Louis, the painter I recently reported left little behind to explain his work, Foote left literally volumes. (Aside from scores of interviews and articles about his writing, Foote published two memoirs--Farewell in 1999 and Beginnings in 2001--and a book of essays--Genesis of an American Playwright, 2004. Michael Wilson, the director of OHC, used Farewell as a resource during rehearsals.) First off, the playwright’s own statement gives a hint: "Early on, I said to myself that I would like to write a kind of moral and spiritual history of a place.” Even Foote saw that this objective sounded a little “pretentious,” but that’s what he set out to do. Director Wilson stated that he thinks people who see Foote as a miniaturist have misunderstood his work, but I think OHC is, on one level, precisely a portrait of a town and an extended family limned in minute detail, focusing on carefully selected events that spotlight, in Foote’s estimation, the deeper truths of life in America. Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal called the cycle “’Our Town’ in macrocosm”--doing in nine acts what Thornton Wilder did in three. I don’t think Foote applies the artistry and sociological clarity to OHC that Wilder did to OT, which, for all its apparent sentimentality is a tremendously clear abstraction of early-20th-century American life. Foote’s American portrait is much more tied to particular people and their peculiar histories. In Cousins, a play all about family connections both past and present, one character accuses Horace of being obsessed with the past. He is, because he and Foote both believe that our history helps define us; Horace’s past has surely made him what he is. He is set on the path that leads him through the span of the plays because of what happens to him in his childhood either because it shapes him directly--being abandoned by his mother, left to fend for himself as a small child, dropping out of school in sixth grade--or because he struggles to overcome or change his heritage--losing his father at an early age, being shut out by an emotionally distant mother, dismissed by an even colder step-father, watching his future wife dominated by a martinet father make him seek out a family of his own and become a diligent and caring parent. It’s his past that teaches him to want these things and make him go after them so singlemindedly.

Within this objective, to use an actor’s term, are more universal themes that Foote’s exploring. Cousin Minnie tells Horace in Cousins, “A family is a remarkable thing, isn’t it? You belong. And then you don’t. It passes you by.” An orphan is someone without a family, and Foote’s daughter characterizes her grandfather, the real-life avatar of Horace, as “a semi-orphan.” In Valentine’s Day, Horace tells his wife, “I am no orphan, but I think of myself as an orphan, belonging to no one but you. I intend to have everything I didn't have before. A house of my own, some land, a yard, and in that yard I will plant growing things, fruitful things . . . .” A theme Michael Wilson stressed in rehearsal was “the search for home and identity,” and Horace is constantly creating a family and a home because he lost both when he was 12 and never got them back until he was old enough to build them for himself. Horace is obsessed with his past because that’s the hole he’s trying to fill in his life.

The sweep of the cycle, which begins with a death (Horace’s father) and ends with one (Elizabeth’s father), is ultimately about Horace’s efforts to make himself into the kind of man he wants to be. He had come from Southern aristocracy--one ancestor had been governor of Texas (a fact of Foote’s family history as well), but the family never came out of the devastation of the Civil War and Restoration. Then what was left of the family is taken from Horace as his father sinks into alcoholism, his mother leaves the home, his father dies, and he’s left alone in Harrison. Even his father’s friends and relatives who promise to look after him disappear: his father’s law partner, John Howard, dies suddenly, his cousin George Tyler becomes a drunk, and his Uncle Terrence Robedaux is an “overeducated fool” who reads Greek and Latin, but can’t do anything, as his Thornton relatives constantly point out. Finally, his grandmother Robedaux, unable to face the death of her son, leaves Harrison and sells their home, leaving Horace in the care of his mother’s family, who essentially turn him loose. The family can’t even afford to put a tombstone on Paul Horace’s grave. Out of this, Horace becomes determined to make himself into something better, a responsible husband and father. Hallie Foote says of her grandfather, he “had nothing [but] turned out to be this sort of upstanding guy”--and that’s what happens over the nine episodes of OHC: Horace invents himself.

Foote himself said that part of the scope of OHC is to portray the changes wrought by the passage of an era in the post-bellum South. I’m sure that’s true--it is in the plays--but first of all, it forms the background of the more personal--or, at least, human--stories Foote’s telling, and second, it’s not a subject about which we know little, at least in dramatic terms. Of greater impact, I think, is Foote’s exploration of his own question, “How do people stand everything that comes to them? Why is it that some people find a way to deal with the tragedies that come their way and other people unravel?" He even has Horace ask a nearly identical question in 1918. Foote has said that this is an abiding question for him, and his daughter also repeats it. In OHC, the question most often refers to the deaths that seem to surround Horace and his family. At the time his father dies, his former partner dies, too; right after Henry Vaughn dies at the end of the cycle, the Robedauxs’ young housekeeper, Gertrude, drowns on a fishing trip. In between, every episode includes several deaths, many of which are almost shrugged off. It may be that when Foote reduced each play to the one hour of its most dramatic content, all those deaths, which may have just been part of the passing scene in the longer versions, became salient. When they’re strung together in the cycle, the plot begins to seem like a litany of mortality.

In addition, while I’ll accept Foote’s own assertion that he’s examining how people cope with what’s handed them, when Horace asks, “How can human beings stand all that comes to them? How can they?” no answer comes back. In fact, someone always seems to be asking a similar question, and the response it always draws is, ‘They just do.’ I don’t know if Foote’s telling us that no one has the answer or he just didn’t--and maybe in real life that’s the best answer anyone can give, but in drama, if you’re going to raise that question, especially if you’re going to make a point of it, you ought to have a more philosophical answer at hand. If not that, then make the point that it’s a question no one can answer. I suspect that’s actually the playwright’s intent; he also said, after all, “I believe very deeply in the human spirit and I have a sense of awe about it because I don’t know how people carry on.” Maybe his tacit way of addressing this mystery is dramaturgically effective and I’m just too literal, but downplaying it, despite the frequency with which Foote raises the question, seems more off-hand than focal, more dismissive than significant. And maybe that’s why I’m not a playwright.

I think I’ve gone on long enough about the undertaking that the production of OHC represents and Foote’s themes and objectives and I ought to address the staging of this trilogy. So here goes.

Actually, it’s not terribly hard to evaluate the production as a piece of theater--or three pieces, as it were. The work of all the artists is top-notch. I’m sure if I think about it, I could come up with some quibbles, but overall, no one misses much that I could see. And when I take into consideration the prodigious effort that the trilogy represents, it’s somewhat amazing that no one stumbles. A lot of the credit for this obviously goes to Michael Wilson, who coordinated all the work that culminates in the three-part production and kept everyone on the same track. From the reports, he also had a hand in revising the scripts for the nine-play assembly, not least because he and Hallie Foote did the final editing after the playwright’s death four months before rehearsals started. (I also assume that James Houghton was engaged in much of the process as well, though clearly less directly than Wilson.) And because of the nature of the plays, their setting in the earliest years of the 20th century, in a milieu that was almost certainly unfamiliar to everyone in the cast (except, of course, Ms. Foote) and design team, and Horton Foote’s invocation of music, dances, customs, and lore of his native region, the efforts of Kirsten Bowen, Signature’s Literary Associate and the dramaturg for the production, and her staff were probably invaluable; indeed, her own description of what the literary team did makes that evident. The literary staff pulled together scads of materials---photos, diaries, descriptions, documents, and the like--that helped bring the details of the century-old world of small-town southeast Texas to life for the designers, actors, and director. For three hours each night, this company manages to create a series of snapshots of the world Foote envisioned and draw us into it for a time. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment; I’ve seen performances, far simpler than this one and set in a more accessible time and place, where the cast and director didn’t manage to inhabit a believable world and I sat outside the experience watching actors acting. And this troupe did it while covering a span of almost three decades and while some of them were playing more than one character. (If there ever was a show that demanded a non-star ensemble, this is it, by the way. Not only does the dynamic of the world of Harrison, Texas, need the kind of enveloping acting to create and maintain the snow-globe universe--one actor, taking off from Cousin Minnie’s line about family, said that the company has formed a temporary family--but a star actor might burst through that glass globe and unbalance the performance.)

This isn’t to say that the whole experience is without flaws or problems. I can’t avoid being impressed with the achievement because it’s so daunting to contemplate, but I do wonder if the result is as impressive as the effort. I’ve already hinted at a few textual issues--the litany of deaths, the unanswered and unanswerable question Foote keeps asking--and I suggested that some of the problems might be caused by reducing longer plays meant to stand on their own to one-hour episodes of a coherent cycle. I’ve seen eight of August Wilson’s 10 black-experience plays and I had the sense that one or two were written not out of inspiration but duty. I felt one, for instance, was composed because themes to be developed later had to be introduced, so the playwright came up with a plot to fit the need, not because he had a story to tell. Another play seemed to have been created because Wilson knew he had to have a play for a missing decade, so he wrote one to fill the gap. With Foote’s nine plays, I sometimes had the same sense even though his cycle isn’t tied to such a specific pattern. Michael Feingold in the Village Voice criticized Foote’s dramaturgy as occasionally an “expository motor [which] seems to hum without moving anything forward.” Cousins, which seems like an excuse to set out a display of Horace’s family tree and demonstrate the importance of history to him, feels gratuitous to me, (It is, interestingly, the one play that spans the greatest distance, moving from Harrison to Houston and back to Harrison.) Cousins also epitomizes a more pervasive problem with OHC: there are so many characters, especially family members, that it was impossible for me to keep track of them and to keep them all straight. (Because different actors sometimes play one character, this difficulty’s exacerbated.) In fact, The Story of a Family (of which Cousins is the second act) is much less engaging than The Story of a Childhood, the most intriguing section of the cycle. And 1918 seems to exist in order to show the devastation of the flu pandemic, but once we know it’s going on, it’s hardly a surprise when Horace succumbs and then we learn that baby Jenny has died. (We certainly know that Horace will survive since the story would end if he dies.) The Death of Papa is less predictable--though the title gives away the central event, of course--but feels attenuated, as if Foote needed to fill in facts he determined were important for the end of the chapter and put them all into the last play.

The central character, Horace Robedaux, is a bit of a problem, too, I think. The cycle’s the dramatic equivalent of a Bildungsroman, the story of the development of the protagonist, and Horace is the classic unbeschriebenes Blatt, the blank page. He’s a little like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace--he walks through his own story like a spectator more than a participant (much less the prime mover). The story happens to him, but he doesn’t propel it. I was never much of a lit student, so I guess that works in prose, but it has problems in drama. It means the center of the play is a cipher. Like Bezukhov, Horace is a lens through which we see the other characters and the events of the story, but a lens isn’t active. This has nothing that I can see to do with the performances of Bill Heck or the two young actors who play Horace at 12 (Dylan Riley Snyder) and 14 (Henry Hodges), who all did fine work. (I read one comment--on a blog--that complained that the two boys had missed the strength of the character, but I don’t believe either actor missed much of anything. Reviews that mentioned them, praised their work.) The fault here is that the character’s written that way and no actor or director could alter that. In fact, Heck communicates a great deal of Horace’s inner turmoil, the confusion or pain he feels as life seems to single him out for special battering, with often subtle shifts in his body or face. One excellent example is when Mr. Vaughn, having softened to his new son-in-law, gives Horace a priceless gift: a box of books that had belonged to Paul Horace Robedaux. Foote’s simple words of thanks don’t even begin to express the emotions Horace is feeling at that moment; but Heck’s face and manner do. (This isn’t to say that Heck doesn’t manage some big moments as well. His descent into malaria in Lily Dale along with the accompanying dementia is very effective--and affecting.) Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post called Heck “a modern-day Gary Cooper”--which I think is a little much, but you get the idea (unless you’re too young to remember Coop).

A lesser problem is that the characters are unbalanced by gender. While Horace has bad parenting models in both father-figures (his own father, his father-in-law, his brother-in-law, his step-father) and mother-figures (his mother, his mother-in-law, his sister), the women are generally stronger personalities than the men, who run the gamut from drunkards, gamblers, and loose-livers to killers. Corrie Robedaux has the gumption to leave her husband, a drunk who can’t provide for his family, a choice that would have been horrendously hard at the turn of the century. She may have been a lousy mother, abandoning her son, but she pulls herself up and makes a life for herself and her daughter. Mary Vaughn is cowed by her stiff-backed husband, but after his death, she becomes the family matriarch. She makes a mistake when she turns the family holdings over to her son to manage, but she wrests them back when he proves incompetent and untrustworthy. Elizabeth Vaughn defies her father to marry Horace and faces ostracism only to prove she was right in her judgment. Claire Ratliff, who vacillates over whether to remarry and, if so, to whom, ultimately makes her decision based on what she thinks is best for her family. She chooses an older, established man because he can provide for them and because her children like him. Even Lily Dale, Horace’s willful sister, self-centered and petulant from childhood through her adult years, goes after what she wants and gets it. (Foote, according to his daughter, was pretty much raised by the women of his family--his mother, grandmothers, and aunts. They were also the ones who told the stories--presumably from their points of view--that the future playwright was listening to in Wharton. His female characters are often praised as more vivid than his males.) I don’t know that Foote was making a conscious point that women are stronger than men or are more responsible for the way we come through our hardships, but if he wasn’t, he’s inadvertently done that anyway.

It’s hard to pull out one or two actors who do better jobs than the cast as a whole--as I said, this was a true ensemble production. With a cast as large as this one, it wouldn’t have been surprising to find an actor here or there who wasn’t in the world of the play or somehow didn’t connect with a scene partner or a particular moment. I never spotted anything like that. Oh, sure, an actor stumbles over a line here or there--can you imagine keeping all that dialogue in your head, especially actors like Maggie Lacey, whose principal role is Elizabeth, or Bill Heck, who’s in every play but Convicts? (The Story of a Family had just opened on 26 January, just over a week before I saw it.) So, I don’t even count those inconsequential bobbles. You want guaranteed line-perfection, see a movie! But the entire cast is immersed in the world Foote created and Wilson translates onto the stage. (Three of the actors--Lacey, Heck, and Bryce Pinkham, who mostly plays Brother Vaughn--took a trip to visit Wharton, Texas, in the break between the closing of the Hartford presentation and the start of the Signature performances. They met many of the people around whom Horton Foote had grown up--descendants in some cases of the characters in the plays--and saw the places featured in the plot, including the family gravesite where Paul Horace’s real-life counterpart is buried. Pinkham recounts how Heck and Lacey stood before the graves of Foote’s father and mother, the Horace and Elizabeth of OHC.) I can’t say anyone hits a false note. Most of the acting is pretty low-key; I’d say it’s almost film acting with the extra energy needed to work live in a theater. There’s occasional scenery-chewing--not uncalled for--such as James DeMarse’s portrayal of Soll Gautier, the alcoholic and delusional plantation owner in Convicts, who progressively becomes so demented that he doesn’t remember who’s alive and who’s dead. (In his white fright wig, he looks a little like Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol after he’d been visited by Marley’s ghost.) He’s so distracted in the end that he has Horace read to him from Civil War-era newspapers he has stashed in his house, then instructs his hired hands to order his coffin built in preparation for his imminent death. (After a gallows-humorous bit where Gautier lies in his coffin and everyone thinks he’s died there, he ends up dying quietly in a chair, gripping Horace’s hand as the boy is reading the old papers.) Gautier is a thoroughly despicable character--cheap (he never pays poor Horace), dishonest, mean, paranoid--but DeMarse’s portrayal makes him sympathetic. Of course, there are many drunks in the nine plays, and their scenes are always higher-energy than the surrounding ones, but they’re never out of line or over the top.

DeMarse, in addition to his tour-de-force appearance as Soll Gautier, also depicts Henry Vaughn, Horace’s stern father-in-law, as a man who cares deeply about his family but only knows how to hem them in to protect them. (Diana suggested that she’d like to see DeMarse play Lear because he was able to portray both anguish and strength in the same character. He does that, no question, but I’m not sure that alone prepares him for Lear, especially since DeMarse lists no classical roles in his bio.) Other cast members who do noticeable work include Maggie Lacey, who aside from Elizabeth Vaughn Robedaux plays Inez Thornton, one of Horace’s aunts, an actress of strong and secure manner, but who displays it in a softness of demeanor and behavior that makes Elizabeth the calm center of the storm that always seems to be swirling around her husband. And I can’t get away without some comment about Hallie Foote, who’s been playing her father’s women with a sharp tongue and tough spirit for so long that she almost seems to be living the plays rather than acting in them. (She appears mostly as Mary Vaughn, Elizabeth’s mother, but also does turns as Asa Gautier Vaughn, a slatternly, mean drunk, and Elizabeth Hill Robedaux, Horace’s grandmother and the matriarch of the boy’s father’s family. I’ve also seen her in Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. I assume she’s appeared in other writers’ plays, but I can’t imagine what she’d be like.) To name other actors whose work stands out would be to replicate the cast list, I’m afraid. (I will add one observation: Henry Hodges, as the young Horace who’s not quite a man in Convicts, works with DeMarse in that gothic scene I described above with just the right hint of fear, amazement, and determination not to freak out.)

Speaking of the acting essentially also refers to the directing here, since no cast could have pulled this effort together without the guiding hand of a director. So whatever I’ve said about the actors goes just as forcefully for Michael Wilson. His decision, with scenic designers Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber, to put the sets on moving platforms and use sliding panels to delineate the rooms and other spaces was certainly one prompted by considerations of efficiency, but it enhances, even underlies, the cinematic sweep the production exhibits. Silently and seemingly effortlessly, each setting shifts into the next while at the same time, retaining the atmosphere and feel of the ones that came before and the ones that will come after. (There are unifying elements that remain from scene to scene such as the panels’ covering which resembles a country quilt and the backdrop painting of a sun-lit field extending off to the horizon.) The projection of the title of each part and then the title and year of each act (realized by Jan Hartley), while it smacks of Brechtian distancing, is more a tactic to help us enter the world Wilson and the actors create in each episode. Less like the Brechtian labels of his Epic Theater, they are more like the captions under snapshots in a family album. And Wilson has taken another technique that looks Brechtian but works in reverse: each section of the cycle opens with a silent pantomime of a significant image evoked by the three plays that evening. The Story of a Childhood introduces us to the three Horaces--the boy, the teenager, the man--in an almost film-like montage; The Story of a Marriage starts with dancers whirling around the stage while Horace searches for a partner; The Story of a Family begins with silent mourners, shielded from a downpour under umbrellas, parading across the stage. If the staging of the scenes was dictated by necessity and practicality, these kinds of touches go a great way to raising OHC above the level of mere storytelling into metaphoric theater art. (Since I mentioned the dancing, which figures conspicuously in The Story of a Marriage--choreographed by Peter Pucci--I must remark on the prominence of music in OHC. Wilson and John Gromada, who did the original music and sound design for the production, took their lead from Foote’s musical preferences--he was reportedly listening to a lot of Charles Ives while composing the cycle plays, for instance--and have included music and songs both evocative of the period and pertinent to the mood and themes of the episodes, some live, some on records to which the characters listen, and some “soundtrack,” which permeate the production throughout. Music is important to the Robedaux world: Elizabeth teaches piano and Lily Dale is a composer.)

As long as I’ve brought up the design aspects of the show, let me finish them off. In an undertaking as vast as OHC, it would be impossible to get anywhere, much less achieve this level of accomplishment, without the tech people fully on board and working with the director in tandem. As seamless as the set concept is, as integral as the sound and music are, I also have to add that the lighting and costumes are both as much a part of this remarkable whole as any other single part. David C. Woolard faced the surely daunting task of creating scores of costumes eliciting the first three decades of the 20th century, clothes for children, African-American plantation workers and house servants, men both prominent and down on their luck, women of wealth and some in straightened circumstances. But he couldn’t just take fashion plates out of period magazines or sketches from old Sears catalogues; he made designs that added to the characters, spoke of the themes, reflected the locales. It is praiseworthy that no one on the stage is wearing a costume. They are all wearing clothes--their clothes. (A few words here, too, about Mark Adam Rampmeyer’s wigs and hair-dos, of which there are many: if the actors look like 100-year-old tintypes, the hairstyles are the . . .ahem . . . crowning attribute.) And Rui Rita’s lighting makes all of this blend and come alive, whether sunlight through a window in a parlor or the moon through the leaves in the forest or the atmosphere lighting of an interior scene, it smoothes the edges or sharpens the focus as needed so that the little fragmentary sets become whole rooms, verandas, shops, or hospital waiting rooms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production--at least I can’t think of another one--that demands the coordinated effort of all the artists the way OHC does. Again, it must have been Wilson’s attentiveness that kept all the contributors in tune, like the sections of an orchestra, but each artist also had to keep in touch with all the others.

I don’t want to end up giving the wrong impression. OHC is not the greatest theater I’ve ever seen by any measure. I’m immensely impressed with the technical accomplishment, putting this huge event together and doing it as smoothly as Wilson and his team have done. I’m not sure the writing is the same achievement in the sense that, unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings, it was written in parts separately and independently over dozens of years. I don’t think Foote ever thought that one play would have to dovetail with another when he wrote each of them, unlike Tolkien (or J. K. Rowling), who set out to create a whole, integrated universe. Still, Foote did do that in the end, so we have this portrait of a particular small town inhabited by a specific group of people who show us (to paraphrase Thornton Wilder)--the way they were in the provinces south of Houston at the beginning of the Twentieth Century,-- . . . the way they were in their growing-up, in their marrying, in their living, and in their dying. But while I can’t fault the acting or other production aspects, I can’t make myself say OHC was an astounding artistic achievement. I’m thrilled to have seen it, but in ways similar to the way I was thrilled to have seen Tamara, the peripatetic play at which spectators followed one character as she made her way around different rooms of the Park Avenue Armory, but not the way I felt (and feel) about having seen Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides. The one was a major curiosity, cleverly conceived and executed; the other was a major artistic and theatrical accomplishment that has permanently shifted the way I think of theater. OHC falls somewhere in between those, but closer on the continuum to Tamara than Les Atrides.

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