If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

A FOOTE WORLD PREMIERE AT HARTFORD STAGE

The most adventurous theatre of the (barely) new fall season has to be Hartford Stage.  It is here that Artistic Director Michael Wilson has taken on the challenge of producing no less than nine one-act plays by the late Horton Foote segmented into blocks of three plays per evening and utilizing a rotating cast of 21 actors.   For true theatre junkies, all nine plays (with dinner breaks) will be offered on the weekends of October 17 & 24.   Part One of the series has already concluded and will not be presented again until October 16 and 20 or as part of the marathon weekends.  This world premiere classifies as “event theatre” no matter what its current shortcomings may be.

Produced in conjunction with New York’s Signature Theatre (where the production will relocate for a six-month run in early November), the Foote marathon is under the umbrella title of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” with its first part entitled “The Story of a Childhood”.  Part One includes “Roots in a Parched Ground”, “Convicts” and “Lily Dale”.  Set between 1902-1910 in and around Harrison, Texas, the plays focus on the journey of young Horace Robedaux who seeks his fortune after his father dies and his mother remarries a man who has no use for him.  Three actors portray the role of Horace at various stages of his life concluding with “Lily Dale”, clearly the strongest of the evening’s three dramas.

The works of Horton Foote are deceptively simple and contemporary actors (and audiences) have to be careful not to underestimate their subtle, cumulative power.  Worth noting at Hartford is that the whole effect of Foote’s vision may not take hold until you’re well into the series even though each play can be appreciated separately on its own terms.  In Hartford, Michael Wilson has done a masterful job of staging starting with a magnificent visual introduction that has the sweep of a grand epic.  With its sliding panels and rear projection photography (the inventive scenic design is by Jeff Cowie and David Barber), we are immediately drawn into Foote’s singular world of quiet lives lived out in the aftermath of Reconstruction. 

Given the size of the acting company one expects some unevenness in the playing.  Many of the same problems with the youngest actors in Hartford’s previous production of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, are evident here.  But even some of the adult actors don’t always grasp the subtleties of Foote’s dialogue with James DeMarse overacting broadly as a drunken landowner in “Convicts” and Jenny Dare Paulin’s lazy diction hampering her performance as the title character in “Lily Dale”.  Bill Heck (as the eldest Horace), Hallie Foote, Pat Bowie, Pamela Payton Wright, Annalee Jefferies, Charles Turner and Matt Mulhern, however, manage to shine effectively throughout the evening.  Would that all the acting were up to this high level.
All the technical elements are in top form at Hartford including the aforementioned scenic design, Rui Rita’s expressive lighting and David C. Woolard’s costuming.  The forthcoming plays – which include such Foote minor classics as “The Death of Papa”, “Valentine’s Day” and “The Widow Claire” – are stronger and more compelling works; careful studies about a specific time, place and people and, as Foote often observes, the myth of memory.

One can imagine that more rehearsal time would have helped this ambitious project and the somewhat problematic beginning of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” still manages to give hope for more accomplished work to follow.  Stay tuned.

“The Orphans’ Home Cycle” continues at Hartford Stage through October 24th.  For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning September 16, 2009.


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