Horton Foote: The playwright's 'Odyssey' for modern times

Epic nine-hour 'The Orphan's Home Cycle,' opening in New York, explores how people face adversity and the elusive search for home.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    ‘The Story of a Family,’ Part 3 of the ‘Cycle,’ featured Bill Heck as Horace and Maggie Lacey as his wife, Elizabeth.
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    "These are my people and my stories and the plays I want to write, the only ones I know how to write." – Horton Foote, in "Genesis of an American Playwright"
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As a boy in the 1920s, Horton Foote used to eavesdrop on the lives of the adults in his small Texas town. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright later drew on these memories to write numerous plays, including nine based closely on his own family's past.

While the plays can seem deceptively modest, they do no less than reveal "the essential characteristics of the American identity," says Michael Wilson, the artistic director of the Hartford (Conn.) Stage Company.

Mr. Wilson, a longtime collaborator with Mr. Foote, had long wanted to produce all nine plays, several of which had never reached the stage. In late 2007 he asked Foote if he could condense them into three, three-hour plays that could be seen by theatergoers in a single day.

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At the time of his death last March, Foote had essentially completed his task. "The Orphan's Home Cycle" was born.

In October, Hartford Stage presented a world première of "Cycle," including two marathon Saturdays in which ardent fans could see all nine hours – broken up by lunch and dinner breaks – in one day.

The unique play cycle, which closed in Hartford Oct. 24, reopens in New York City Nov. 5 at the Signature Theatre Company and runs until at least March 28, 2010. Theatergoers will be able to see any of the three parts – subtitled "The Story of a Childhood," "The Story of a Marriage," and "The Story of a Family" – individually or, on three occasions, in all-day marathons.

With the exception of August Wilson, who has written 10 separate plays about an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh, "The Orphan's Home Cycle" may be an unprecedented undertaking in American theater history, Wilson says.

Foote is best known for adapting the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" to the screen, his Academy Award-winning screenplay for "Tender Mercies," and his Academy Award nomination for writing "The Trip to Bountiful." He won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play "The Young Man From Atlanta."

"The Orphan's Home Cycle" is distinctly relevant and timeless, even though Foote "bound [the plays] to a very specific place, and years, and manners," Wilson says. "They are perhaps more relevant than any contemporary play I can name."

The plays track the life of Horace Robedaux from the time he is a young boy whose father has died to the time after the death of his father-in-law when he becomes the family patriarch. Like a classic hero, Horace must meet a series of challenges from an early age. Yet he manages to survive and eventually prosper. The character of Horace is based on the life of Foote's own father.

Among the themes Foote explores are the elusive search to find "home" and the question of how people face adversity. Horace is on an "Odyssey," Wilson suggests in program notes, "as profound and epic as Odysseus' return journey."

On the surface, the plays can seem to be a simple, quiet journey into a Southern rural life gone by. But they surprise theatergoers expecting sentimentality, who instead find powerful, dark, often disturbing situations and characters.

"He dares us to look closely at death and loss and mental illness," Wilson says. "He also at the same time shows the depth of the human spirit to face and endure such events in their lives."

Though the plays are about the lives of people in tiny Harrison, Texas (which stands in for Foote's real hometown of Wharton), at their heart they are "extremely universal," Wilson says. "You say to yourself, 'Oh, I have a relative who's like that. I remember feeling like that when I was afraid my parents might actually divorce.' "

Though serious, the plays often also evoke laughter, as the little absurdities of life are exposed. "Horton's work can be so funny," Wilson says. "But the humor comes from the reality of those characters in those situations."

The director was aided in bringing the "Cycle" to life by Foote's daughter Hallie, an actress who has performed with distinction in many of her father's plays and films. "We would do our best to channel Horton" as they faced final production decisions over the summer, Wilson says.

Part 1 was staged for audiences first, while Parts 2 and 3 were still being rehearsed at the same time, making for long days for the actors, Ms. Foote says.

"You talk about marathon runners training," Wilson says. "What we were working for all summer was actually training the actors, building their stamina and endurance to perform all nine hours in one day."

In all, the 22 actors learned 70 roles that spread across three plays in nine acts. Ms. Foote herself plays two roles and appears in seven of the nine acts. The "Cycle" is being touted as the biggest, most lavish, and most expensive production in the 46-year history of Hartford Stage.

The "Cycle" provides a showcase for what her father learned about his craft in more than six decades as a playwright, Ms. Foote says. "He would have so loved this. He's here. I feel him a lot. I think he would have been so happy with the way this turned out."

She felt no need to advise the younger actors, some of them performing a Foote play for the first time, on how to approach her father's work. "They have this innate understanding that you don't have to sell my father's stuff. If you just trust it, you'll get to go on the ride," she says.

Foote made a breakthrough in adapting his plays when he realized that, despite having enough characters and plots to fill a Russian novel (the program includes a detailed family tree), he needed to simply "follow Horace" to give his "Cycle" needed focus, Wilson says.

"These are my people and my stories and the plays I want to write, the only ones I know how to write," Foote once said.

Over the years, Foote and Wilson would see plays together. "He was always interested in what other people were doing in the theater," Wilson says. But the plays would never cause Foote to change his approach. He would say, "I appreciate this, but it's not my sense of truth, and it's not the way I'll ever write," Wilson says. "He was a genteel man of great compassion and full of wit and tremendous heart.... He possessed a passionate curiosity, and I would describe it as a childlike curiosity."

Sometimes, Wilson says, Foote would ask him, "Michael, 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?"

It was a mystery that he explored "over and over again in his plays," Wilson says. Though his plays never preach, Foote answered the question for himself through a deep religious faith, Wilson says. "That was his solution."

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