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A CurtainUp Review
The Carpetbagger's Children
By Les Gutman
Oral history (imagined, in this case) suits Horton Foote's latest play, The Carpetbagger's Children, arriving at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theatre after a tour of a trio of major regional theaters (Houston's Alley, Minneapolis's Guthrie and Hartford Stage). The three remaining Thompson sisters, Cornelia (Roberta Maxwell), Grace Ann (Jean Stapleton) and Sissie (Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter), relive their family's history in the town of Harrison, Texas (Foote's usual surrogate for his own home town of Wharton), to which their father, a Union soldier, returned after the Civil War as a carpetbagger. He's gone now, as is their most beloved sister, Beth. Their only brother, ill-fortuned though he may be, is still around as is their heard-but-not-seen mother, now suffering from Alzheimer's.
The Thompson patriarch amassed a fortune and lots of land as the County Treasurer and Tax Collector, so much so that he feared letting his children marry lest the estate fall into other hands. Business matters were entrusted to the steely, smart Cornelia: brother's track record was one of failure, the sweet, sensitive and innocent Sissie was a songbird but little more and Grace Ann, no, no, she was a renegade (she would be the first to marry -- never to return home until her father's funeral) who couldn't possibly be relied upon. Against the backdrop of their Yankee outsider station, a century of the Texas Thompson's is explored (improbably, the vantage point extends until after the Second World War), with squabbles, swindles, marriages and misfortunes in tow. Foote's elegant blend of poignancy and gentle humor is very much in evidence throughout, aided by Michael Wilson's very sympatico direction.
The three fine actresses are everything one would expect them to be. Maxwell, who carries the laboring oar, is resolute and strong, her character only once falling prey to lesser instincts and fascinatingly confronting her mandate in the face of changing times. Stapleton, less convincingly a Texan than her colleagues, is nonetheless remarkable as the strong-headed outcast, looking back on her years with an impish delight shadowed by a hint of regret. Ms. Foote is near perfect, although the news that her character is already dead is one of several inexplicable play elements that can't help but perplex us a bit.
Jeff Cowie has designed a set in which the three women sit comfortably as spokes of a wheel, the hub of which is a table filled with memories -- family photos and so on -- against a beautiful backdrop of Texas countryside. Both his design and Mr. Wilson's direction do a fine job of equalizing the Newhouse's three-sided playing area, such that no audience members are given short shrift. Rui Rita's lighting maintains the warm glow while offering emphasis where needed, and David Woolard's costumes are thoroughly evocative.
The play's shortcoming, and it is a significant one, is in its structure. The Carpetbagger's Children is written as a rotating series of monologues, with only the sparest of interaction between the characters. (Think Conor McPherson.) Yet it is only in these rare moments that the play seems to come to life. It is an odd choice for Mr. Foote, who has certainly proven he is capable of writing effective dialogue. (Ironically, much of the storytelling here consists of series of "I said"/"she said" narration, when both of the speakers are right in front of us and seemingly fully capable of uttering their own words.) As any oral historian will tell you, nothing is more interesting than letting two versions of the past spar with one another.
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS BY HORTON FOOTE
The Last of the Thorntons
The Young Man From Atlanta
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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