Dickens and Shakespeare and a little Tennessee Williams combine for Horton Foote’s Texas Trilogy

By Roz Friedman

Horton Foote’s precious works are like mosaics, woven from seemingly tiny pieces to present a precise panorama of life.  In listening to and watching his plays, you can actually hear his pen carefully etching each word, each vignette, much as a carpenter taking the time to carve a design from a piece of wood. He was a true playwright.

Hartford Stage under Michael Wilson’s loving direction, enhanced by Jeff Cowie’s and David Barber’s elegant floating panels lit smokily by Rui Rita, and a well-integrated cast costumed by David C. Woolard, is presenting “The Orphans’ Home Cycle;” a meaty three part, nine act exploration of life in Texas from 1902 through 1928, it is an enormous project involving 22 actors enacting 70 parts. This kind of production challenges not only the technical staff and the actors, but also the audience, particularly when the actors change wigs and personas. For the most part, this is handled well with some characters standing out more prominently than others. 

Part One, entitled, The Story of A Childhood, is divided into three Acts. Act 1: “Roots In a Parched Ground,” Harrison, Texas 1903, delves into the death of Paul Horace Robideaux, the 32 year old alcohol and cigarette addicted lawyer, a part Bill Heck invests with touching honesty; we meet his family and friends, most particularly his 12 year old son, Horace, reminiscent of Dickens’ David Copperfield, acted bravely by Dylan Riley Snyder. This young man is sadly deserted by his mother, Corella, and sister, Lily Dale, and left to shift for himself, dashing all his dreams, when Corella marries Mr. Pete Davenport.  Act II: “Convicts,” Floyd’s Lane, Texas 1904 is a fierce, Shakespearian-styled view of slavery and poverty. James DeMarse a la King Lear with white scrabble hair flowing around him gives a monumental performance full of humor and menace as Soll Gautier, who has inherited a farm and store from his father; since slavery has been abolished, he hires convicts to work the land. Horace, now 14, played clearly by Henry Hodges, has been saving every penny for 6 months for a tombstone for his dad and never receives the $11.50 he is owed; he’s lucky to get away with his life. Act III: “Lily Dale,” Houston, Texas 1910 is the last in this group. The pampered, piano playing  Lily Dale (Jenny Dare Paulin) thinks her brother, Horace, is a Gypsy ready to attack her; his conflicted mother, portrayed beautifully by Annallee Jeffries,  wants to make up for her terrible treatment of him, giving him $2 for his train fare. But when her nasty husband played by Devon Abner comes home early, she is forced to kick her son out. His collapse from a protracted illness allows him to recover on the living room sofa. Awakening, he finds out that the store he’s worked in has burned down, and he has no job.     

All is introduced by a Prologue that takes place on a railroad car in 1910. Horace Robedaux, our hero, played winningly by Bill Heck, is now twenty years old and is traveling from Harrison, his birthplace, to visit his mother and sister in Houston. A Mrs.Coons asks to sit with him and in the course of her detailed conversation, we learn that her husband is an alcoholic who has lost all their money, and she is a devout Christian. She’s shocked to discover that Horace does not know if he is baptized.  Pamela Payton-Wright is eloquently sympathetic and utterly endearing in this part and in the finale. None of the plays has a startlingly dramatic moment, but punctuated by John Gromada’s Original Music and Folk Tunes, we are caught up in the genuine spirit of the times and look forward to Part Two which opens at the Hartford Stage September 23rd. 

This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PULIC RADIO


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