Henry Hodges, left, as young Horace, and Dylan Rydley Snyder. (Photo by Gregory Costanzo)
NEW YORK – Horton Foote’s “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” is a prodigious work, nine biographical one-act plays, artfully divided into three three-play installments. They were successfully premiered at the Hartford Stage last fall and are playing in repertory at New York’s Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street now through the end of March. There has been talk of transferring the plays to Broadway later this spring in time for the awards season.
Mr. Foote was working on “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” in Hartford when he died last March 4 at age 92. Most of the plays included have been condensed from longer works previously seen on stage or screen. Final cuts were made by Michael Wilson, the skillful stager of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” and artistic director of the Hartford Stage, and the playwright’s daughter, Hallie Foote, who acts a variety of roles in several of the plays.
Like most of Mr. Foote’s works, the plays are set in or around the fictional Harrison, Texas, a stand-in for the Texas town of Wharton, where the playwright was born and grew up. When Mr. Foote was a youngster, Wharton, which is 50 miles southwest of Houston and 40 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, was a sleepy rural town (pop. 300).
Like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., Wharton provided Mr. Foote with fertile ground from which he mined a lifetime of writings. Occasionally, Mr. Foote did adapt other writers’ works, such as Mr. Faulkner’s stories “Old Man” (1958) and “Tomorrow” (1961) for television, as well as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the movies, which won him an Oscar in 1962.
“The Orphans’ Home Cycle: Part One – The Story of a Childhood” begins in 1902 and introduces the plays’ main protagonist Horace Robedaux, a character inspired by Mr. Foote’s grandfather. The central action of the first play, titled “Roots in a Parched Ground,” is the death of Horace’s alcoholic father and the abandonment of Horace by his mother and sister, who leave the boy to find his way in the world on his own. This fate also gives Horace, and playwright Foote, an opportunity to set out on a picaresque journey of dramatic adventures, à la Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
In the second play, “Convicts,” the tone gets darker. Horace finds himself in nearby Floyd’s Lane, Texas, toiling for Soll Gautier (James De Marse), a drunken plantation owner and Lear-like figure who goes in and out of stupefied reality, mistreating not only Horace, but most of his black workers as well.
The third piece, “Lily Dale,” set in 1910, finds Horace on a train to Houston with the hope of reconciliation with his remarried mother and sister Lily.
Although I have only seen Part One of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” I get the feeling that the plays are strongly enough crafted to be enjoyed individually or as a group, as were such sagas as Tom Stoppard’s recent “Coast of Utopia” and Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests” last season.
The 22 actors who make up “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” plays all act two or more roles – including three different actors who play Horace at varying ages – and form, for the most part, an impeccable ensemble. The scenery by Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber captures Texas in all its sparseness and beauty, and is complemented by David C. Woolard’s costumes and Rui Rita’s lighting.
As I sat through the first three hours of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” I was reminded of something Mr. Foote told an interviewer late in his life: “You have to watch out with my plays. They’re like yeast. You think they’re one thing; then all of a sudden the subtext gets working.” The effect of Mr. Foote’s plays is always greater than the sum of their parts.
“The Orphans’ Home Cycle” plays are at the Signature Theatre’s Peter Norton Space, located at 555 W. 42nd St. (between 10th and 11th Avenues). Information is available online at www.signaturetheatre.org or by calling (212) 244-7529.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.