The Orphans’ Home Cycle - Part I
The Signature Theater's decision to present Horton Foote's Orphans' Home Cycle won't be ranked as an event in the history of art equal to the King of Bavaria's building the Opera House at Bayreuth to present Wagner's Ring Cycle.
But with the advantage of time it may come to be thought more highly of than many a ballyhooed "epic" artistic presentation. As theater events go, I'd be very surprised if a hundred years hence it isn't more and more fondly recalled than the first production of Eugene O'Neill's torpid and pretentious epic, Strange Interlude, for instance - or even than Tony Kushner's Angels in America, if such heresy may be permitted here.
The Home Cycle is not just a passing curiosity.
The faults of Foote's vastly broad but utterly intimate study of life in rural Texas in the first decades of the last century are many, and they are abundantly on display in the three plays that make up one evening in Orphans Home Cycle, Part One. Dying in March at age 92, Foote didn't live to finish the re-writing of the trilogy, and it shows. The first of the three plays which make up a three-hour long evening, the fifty-minute long Story of A Childhood, is at times repetitive and needlessly exposition-heavy. There are also surprising anachronisms of speech in all three of the plays that comprise Part One. In the Second Act play Convicts, for instance, a character played by the author's daughter Hallie calls herself a "slut", rather than, as would be correct for the day and a person of her class, a "slattern".
And there are some inconsistencies. Thus, we are told that the central character's mother, Corella Robedeaux, has only a fourth grade education. But we also learn that her grandfather was once Governor of Texas. Allowing that the family fortune was lost, is this credible?
The performances of the actors, working under Hartford Stage director Michael Wilson, also vary widely in quality.
But the strengths of both presentation and of the plays are very considerable. Foote has the humanity and the knowledge of people that lie at the essence of the important artist, and the comparisons made between Foote and Chekhov are hardly unjustified. Slow-moving as it sometimes is, Orphans' Home Cycle, Part One shows real people of a more moralistic but not more moral time. And, as with Chekhov, the sad parts are often funny, and the funny parts often sad.
Our protagonist Horace Robedeaux, who is loosely modeled on Foote's own father, is orphaned at age twelve by his father's death and by a cruel stepfather's determination to place him outside the home. From this event, there follows the most interesting section of the play, Horace's adolescent sojourn on a plantation run by an egocentric, dipsomaniacal and somewhat addled former Confederate officer (James DeMarse).
In the last section, entitled Lily Dale, Horace, now a young adult, visits his mother and sister in Houston and comes to realize his need for more schooling - and his increasing alienation from them.
The Home Cycle shows the obsessions of the people of the time: for religion, the sanctity of marriage, opera and parlor singing, whiskey and, most of all, money. In this sense, it has power not only as a human study but as a reminder both of the nearness and the distance of the past.
In bringing the cycle to the stage, both Signature and Hartford Stage, as the joint producers, deserve our praise. For the production is both handsome and immense. The cast for Part One is 21 actors, not counting understudies.
Among this number, three are especially worthy of note: Dylan Riley Snyder as the youngest version of Horace, the riveting Mr. DeMarse and the engaging and charismatic Pamela Payton-Wright as an eccentric Baptist proselytizer.
Is this great theater? It is at least very, very good. And just as it considers history, only the greater sweep of history will accurately render a verdict on it.
Orphans' Home Cycle continues through March 27, 2010 in alternation with parts Two and Three at Signature Theater). For more information visit the Signature Theater website.