Complex Family Ties Drive Horton Foote's Pulitzer-Winning Play

Horton Foote has traveled a long, varied path on his way to the Pulitzer Prize for a 1995 drama called "The Young Man From Atlanta," opening tonight on Broadway.

After establishing his credentials as a playwright in the 1940s, he became a pioneering writer for live TV in its "golden age" of the 1950s, then turned to screenplays and won an Academy Award for "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1962. His achievements since then include a second Oscar for "Tender Mercies," multiple honors for "The Trip to Bountiful," and widespread acclaim for "The Orphan's Home," a series of nine plays about southeast Texas, where his life and values have always been rooted.

Foote's whole career is relevant to his latest play, since in some respects his works are all of a piece. Three characters of "The Young Man From Atlanta" appear in earlier parts of the "Orphan's Home" cycle. More important, the story continues Foote's longtime focus on family issues, the complex relationships between generations, and the role of memory as a slippery "glue" that simultaneously holds people together and makes it hard for them to agree on just about anything.

In sum, while the new drama will stand on its own for theatergoers discovering Foote for the first time, seasoned admirers will recognize all the ingredients that have made him one of American drama's most valuable and enduring assets.

Will Kidder, the main character of "The Young Man From Atlanta," is an old man from Houston, full of hopes for the future but knocked off his stride by two recent events. Still recovering from the loss of his son Bill, who died in his mid-30s under somewhat mysterious circumstances, Will has also been fired from his 40-year job with a local food company.

Not ready to retire and convinced that America is still a land of opportunity - the year is 1950, and many businesses are thriving - he plans to finance a new enterprise with money saved over the years by Lily Dale, his wife. But the cash is largely gone, he discovers, given by Lily Dale to the grief-stricken young man who lived with their son in an Atlanta boarding house.

What tied the late Bill to his roommate, whom Lily Dale pities but Will despises with a vengeance? Was their son's death an accident, as they've tried to believe, or a suicide with motives they're afraid to uncover? Can the Kidders get through this rough patch of their lives, or do Will's uncertain health and Lily Dale's emotional fragility spell more trouble for the future? These are the questions that run through the drama - sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes implied with an understatement that makes them all the more powerful.

Already seen in Boston and Chicago since its off-Broadway world premire, "The Young Man From Atlanta" benefits in its Broadway production from a cast that's close to ideal. Rip Torn plays Will with his trademark blend of volatility and vulnerability, supported by Shirley Knight's poignant portrayal of Lily Dale as a woman whose home-centered life has not prepared her well for the ordeals she now faces.

Both performances need a bit more psychological deepening than Torn and Knight have given them so far, but this will probably emerge as they settle more comfortably into their roles. The play's dialogue has a tendency toward rambling and repetition at times, too, and this may also be smoothed over as the acting takes on a more fully realized life of its own.

William Biff McGuire is remarkably authentic as Lily Dale's aging stepfather, and Jacqueline Williams and Beatrice Winde are superb as domestic workers whose lives have intertwined with the Kidders' in uniquely Southern ways that Foote understands as intimately as any playwright ever has. Robert Falls directed the production, which has an open-ended run at the Longacre Theatre.

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