New Foote play survives flooding

The cast of "The Carpetbagger's Children" has already survived a flood that destroyed the theater they played at in Houston. Now they're working their way north and east, with a New York run still in sight.

Master American playwright Horton Foote's new play, which premièred in Houston near his beloved hometown of Wharton, Texas, earlier this summer, is now in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Lab Theater. It's the story of an east Texas family told through the eyes of three daughters of a Union soldier, who settled in Texas after the Civil War. Three outstanding actresses speak directly to the audience (and only rarely to each other) as they tell the tale of their family and strong challenges that are balanced by equally deep moments of love, reconciliation, and new understanding. All this occurs without a hint of sentimentality, something that never creeps into Foote's work - from films like "The Trip to Bountiful" and the Oscar-winning "Tender Mercies" to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Young Man From Atlanta."

"Carpetbagger" got off to a soggy start. Roberta Maxwell, who plays Cornelia, recalls that the cast was dining in a Houston restaurant. It had been raining for days. "Suddenly, Hallie [Foote, the playwright's daughter, who is also in the cast] said, 'It's time to go.' " Mr. Foote, Ms. Foote, Ms. Maxwell, and Jean Stapleton, the third cast member, set out in a car. They barely made it to their lodging.

The next day they learned that the basement stage at the Alley Theater, where they had been playing, had been flooded with water and destroyed. All their props were lost too. "We saw pictures of 18-wheelers floating down the streets, snakes and alligators swimming around," Maxwell says.

That was on a Saturday night. In a splendid example of "the show must go on," working with the Alley they found another, smaller theater. The props were reproduced. By Tuesday night, "Carpetbagger" was back up and running.

Foote's dialogue: challenging and rewarding

The show offers another challenge - this one for the three actresses. Each must deliver long monologues.

When Maxwell learned from her agent that her role included 17 pages of dialogue, she wasn't sure she could do it. Then she got a phone call from a man with a soft, Southern voice. "Hello, Roberta. I'm so glad you're doing my play," said Foote. She paused. "Yes, Horton," she replied. (Later, her agent told her she had made a mistake: The part wasn't 17 pages long, it was 28 pages. But it was too late to back out.)

Ms. Stapleton plays Grace Anne, the black sheep of the family. Best known for her award-winning work as Edith Bunker on TV's "All in the Family," her long career has included seven previous plays or films with Foote.

"I call him 'Anton,' " she says, referring to the famed Russian playwright Chekhov. In many roles, she says, she must work hard to inject more than is there on the page to shore up a weak script. Not with Foote. "The colors [of meaning and emotion] that result only happen with a great playwright," she says.

After a coming run in Hartford, Conn.,

the show will have to close, at least temporarily, while Stapleton honors a commitment to perform her one-woman show about Eleanor Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. She hopes, then, to get another call from Foote to continue with "Carpetbagger," perhaps in New York.

Necessity breeds new form of theater

For Foote himself, the intimate three-character play, done almost exclusively as monologues delivered directly to the audience, is a new form. Lacking the resources of film and television, he says, "this is what theater is being forced to do" - develop small, intimate productions. The other side of the coin is the creativity it unleashes to develop storytelling in new ways.

Foote watches every performance and is still making small changes, mostly cutting a line here or there. And he's still discovering new aspects of the play himself. After a long speech by Sissie [Ms. Foote], the spotlight turns to Grace Anne, who says calmly, "Sissie died." "I didn't realize, writing it, how effective that moment was going to be," Foote says.

"He's a very modern playwright," says director Michael Wilson, who is also artistic director of the Hartford Stage. "Horton has such an authentic and truthful voice. There's not a false bone in his body. I don't think anybody loves theater more than he does, and his love of it keeps intensifying...."

"Carpetbagger," Mr. Wilson says, may not be everyone's "cup of tea." But "the reward and riches are great for an audience member who takes the journey," with Foote and his actresses.

The Carpetbagger's Children' runs at the Guthrie Lab Theater in Minneapolis through Sept. 2. It then moves to the Hartford (Conn.) Stage Co. from Sept. 7 through Sept. 20.

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