The Orphans’ Home Cycle -- From Youth to Age
By Bob and Karen Isaacs
Horton Foote, whose trilogy, The Orphan’s Home Cycle, is now at Hartford Stage, is known for his plays about small-town Texas. In works such as The Trip to Bountiful, The Carpetbagger’s Children, and last year’s hit at The Stage, Dividing the Estate, he draws careful – some would say, slow paced – portraits of inhabitants of these towns: the virtuous and the hypocrites, the generous and the selfish, the bigoted and the big-hearted, the hard-working and the lazy. His characters are not important people, but the average. You may care and feel for these people, or you may view them as shallow and unlikable.
The Orphan’s Home Cycle is drawn from a nine-play cycle that tells the youth, young adulthood and adult life of Horace Robedaux, a character based on Foote’s own father.
Concerned that the entire nine plays could not easily all be performed, at the urging of Michael Wilson, artistic director of Hartford Stage and a major interpreter of Foote, Foote condensed each play into one act. It is this shortened version that is now at Hartford Stage.
Part One is The Story of a Childhood, where we see Horace at 12, 14 and 20. He is virtually abandoned to grow up on his own in the episodic first act as his father dies, his father’s mother and family move away, and his own mother quickly remarries a man who does not want to take care of Horace and she moves to Houston. In the second act, he is again alone tending store on a plantation worked by convicts and in the third act, he visits his mother in Houston where, though she wants to atone for his past neglect, she is unable to stand up to his step-father and her self-centered daughter.
The Story of a Marriage sees Horace court first the Widow Claire and then later more successfully court Elizabeth Vaughn and settle into what appears to be a happy marriage and a prospering career as a store owner.
The third part, which will open October 8, is The Story of a Family, has Horace and Elizabeth with children and facing the vicissitudes of life.
No matter how you feel about these productions, and we disagree, you will agree that the sets, costumes, lighting and sound design are outstanding. The moods of each work are established early and carried forward. The production team created a unity.
But you may have mixed feelings about this work. The prologue that opens Part I is brilliant – introducing us to the then 20-year-old Horace and giving us needed background. However some may find act one too episodic to be satisfying. Most will agree that act two, “Convicts,” is compelling theater; the act is particularly moving as a half mad plantation owner, Soll Gautier (James DeMarse) believes that the convicts whom he employs on his plantation are attempting to kill him. Presumably this is meant as a learning experience for the young Horace who has been left out there to tend the store owned by his cousin. Horace is trying to persuade Gautier to pay him the money he has earned, so he can buy a tombstone for his father’s grave.
Once again there we are divided over act three. To some extent the problem may be that many of the characters are people you dislike – shallow and self-absorbed.
While two child actors, Dylan Riley Snyder and Henry Hodges, play Horace as a child, Bill Heck takes over the role when Horace reaches 20. Heck's performance captures a kind of innocence that presumably is being tested by people and situations though some might think Heck’s interpretation of his quiet demeanor is one-dimensional.
In Part two the same things may bother some viewers – episodic story telling, slowly developing plots and Heck’s performance. Horace is a man who seems incapable of acknowledging the bad in others or of showing anger no matter what the provocation.
Here’s where we disagree. For many in the audience, this is a slowly building story of an individual surviving and succeeding under terrible conditions. For some Bill Heck as Horace touches your heart. For others his Horace is too stiff and fails to develop any humanizing qualities. Also, some may see The Cycle as a portrait of a society -- small town Texas in the early 20th century -- that may be gone but its attitudes live on. For others the episodic structure and the gentle pacing will prove tedious. It is hard to say whether the original full-length plays that were the basis for each act would overcome some of the difficulties.
But all must agree on the high level of acting although many of the characters and situations seem pedestrian or underdeveloped -- most actors play different roles in different plays – and the wonderful scenic, costume, lighting and sound design that the production team at Hartford Stage has created. Some viewers will become part of this world while others may be unable to identify with it.
The Orphans’ Home Cycle is at Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St., in downtown Hartford through Oct. 24. Plays may be seen individually or in tandem. For a specific schedule of performances and for tickets and information call the box office at 860-527-5151 or online at hartfordstage.org.
This review appeared in Shore Publications.