'Last of the Thorntons' stirs the heart

In "The Last of the Thorntons," playwright Horton Foote demonstrates that nothing ever breaks quite like the heart - however quietly.

Images and motifs of loss, unrealized dreams, and dislocation dominate the tragicomedy, from the first sound of a piano playing a dissonant melody - haunting and vague, like a memory one cannot reach - to the last, poignant sounds at the end of the play that echo faintly a lost world and a lost life.

The play takes place on an afternoon in 1970 in the sitting room of a nursing home. The first obvious dislocation in the play is place. Most of the characters do not want to be in a nursing home. They want to go home. But there is no way home for these people. In Foote's world, home is a state of existence as much as a place. It is a belonging and attachment that gives a sense of identity. "My heart has been broken many times by people I loved who couldn't find a way," Foote has said.

Alberta Thornton, the title character, played by Hallie Foote, is one of those people. She is the youngest resident of the nursing home; she is the last of the Thorntons, once a prominent family. Alberta's great-grandfather owned a plantation and 170 slaves, and her grandfather was acting governor of Texas during the Mexican War.

Alberta is obsessed with the idea that her attorney cousin and a nephew are ready to take her home. She is also obsessed with guilt about the family's slave-owning past. She apologizes to every black person she meets. She has always feared being left alone. She was brought to the nursing home after she thought a group of blacks were descending on her home in vengeance over her ancestors' slaveholding. Then she decided they were "hippies." She is there for her nerves to quiet. She thinks they have.

Alberta is the nursing home's "problem patient." She takes her clothes off and threatens to walk the halls stark naked. When she comes out of her room, she is neatly dressed, but she walks with quick, determined steps from door to door intent on getting out. An aide has to outrun her to block each exit.

When not demanding to go home, she sits neatly dressed and heart-breakingly beautiful, her face alternately washed over with anxiety, resigned hopelessness, and despair. She moves with the posture of royalty even as she comes apart before the audience's eyes. Ms. Foote's Alberta is a bravura performance.

Fannie Mae Gossett (Estelle Parsons) is something of a foil for Alberta and the other residents. Full of life and talk, she works at the drugstore and while making deliveries takes time for a "visit" with everyone. Fannie Mae is a walking oral history, and Ms. Parsons performs her with vitality, style, and authority.

She relates to Alberta better than any of the other characters. In one of the play's moving and lovely moments, Alberta sings, "I Get the Blues When It Rains," and Fannie Mae joins her. Fannie Mae remembers Alberta's love of movies, especially Rudolph Valentino and "The Sheik." Alberta had planned to go to Hollywood. Her life is a mass of confused memories from the past. Fannie Mae is a much older "survivor" who owns her home and remembers the past with interest and enthusiasm.

Ms. Foote and Ms. Parsons lead a uniformly excellent cast. Director James Houghton directs with a light, delicate, but sure hand.

In 90 minutes, playwright Foote brings together a group of characters and a place the audience comes to know intimately through the subtle craftsmanship he exercises as they talk back and forth. There is humor in their conversation, a comic sense that grows out of Foote's affection for his characters, with all their peculiarities and foibles. Foote's is a rounded rendering of their humanity - both the comic and the tragic.

In the end, Alberta, who has never wanted to be left alone, stands alone in a shadow. She may "wait for the sun," but she is more likely to feel the blues and the rain. What she has had of life is unrealized dreams and confused, troubled memories. There is no "Sheik." He is dead. There are no tents in which to creep. She has no home. In the background, far-off music suggests the chords of her life; memories too far off to retrieve.

And once more, Horton Foote, the master of the eloquence of understatement, has tugged the heart to the point of breaking - quietly, but surely.

"The Last of the Thorntons" received a Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award for 2000. Its run at New York's Signature Theatre Company is scheduled through Jan. 28. The text of "The Last of the Thorntons" is available from The Overlook Press in New York: (212) 965-8400 or www.overlookpress.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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