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.
(Page 2 of 2)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"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."