Horton Foote play recalls carpetbaggers

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  April 12, 2002 at 12:56 PM
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NEW YORK, April 12 (UPI) -- Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote returns to his imaginary Harrison, Tex., in the post-Reconstruction era in his new play, "The Carpetbagger's Children," a multi-monologue drama that has the faded aroma of an heirloom sachet.

Harrison is Foote's favorite setting for several of his more than 60 plays and only a thin disguise for the 86-year-old playwright's hometown, Wharton, Tex.

In this 90-minute intermissionless play at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater he focuses on three sisters who are the daughters of a Northern soldier who liked Texas enough when posted there in the Civil War to return and become the state's treasurer in its Reconstruction government.

Such Yankees, especially those who enriched themselves in the reconstruction posts by buying up plantation land, were known as carpetbaggers, and the sisters remember the searing shame of having been pointed out as carpetbagger's children by their classmates in school. Their strongest link to the community was a veteran Confederate officer who was their father's closest friend.

Nearly isolated from their contemporaries in Harrison, the girls lived their lives through their family, which at one time included a ne'er-do-well brother and an angelic sister. As the curtain opens on "The Carpetbagger's Children," the surviving siblings sit separately in a musty parlor against a painted backdrop of a lonely road at dusk.

They tell their story of their lives in a non-linear manner through lengthy monologues, never interacting -- a new dramatic form for Foote who has always shaped his plays in the conventional manner of dialogue. It works better than might be expected, although a confrontation of the sisters at the end of the play would have been a welcome surprise.

Nevertheless, the play is generally engrossing, not due so much to the material as it is to the three finely delineated performances by Roberta Maxwell as Cornelia, Jean Stapleton as Grace Ann, and Foote's daughter, Hallie Foote, as Sissie. Foote often performs in her father's plays.

Maxwell's opening monologue, sketching an outline of family history to be filled in later as her sisters supply the details, is something of a tour-de-force similar to that of Linda Edmond's monologue earlier this season in Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul."

We learn that her character, Cornelia, has run their father's vast real estate holdings since his death and is the only practical member of a family dependent on its inheritance.

Jean Stapleton makes Grace Ann a fluttery romantic whose elopement with a poor boy she loves earned her banishment from the family, lifted only after her husband's death. She is pitifully grateful for having been forgiven, even if her betrayal of her autocratic father -- who didn't want his girls to marry because they might attract fortune hunters -- is never actually forgotten.

Sissie, as portrayed by Foote, is the passive sister who never really grew up and whose marriage to a perfectly decent man has dwindled to his visiting her every second weekend at the family manse, to which she has returned for spiritual sustenance. She is perfectly happy to be Harrison's favorite occasion singer, performing at weddings and funerals in a sweet, little-girl voice that seems particularly unsuited for her favorite song, "O, the Clanging Bells of Time."

Late in the play we learn that Cornelia also has had a romance, though one-sided, with a con man who married one of her cousins, killed his father-in-law in what he said was self-defense, and claimed to be organizing an insurance company in Houston. After he gets $45,000 out of Cornelia as an investment, along with money from other Harrison friends, he disappears.

Putting all these bits and snippets of information together is like completing a jigsaw puzzle, even though some of the pieces never quite seem to fit because the events they describe are being recalled from three points of view. The audience is more likely to believe Cornelia's account rather than those of Grace Ann and Sissie, although as the controlling sister she tends to smooth over situations over which she has no control.

The Victorian parlor setting with its center table filled with silver-framed family photographs is the creation of Jeff Cowie and is correct for the era, whereas David C. Woolard's costumes are vaguely mid-20th century, somewhat later than when the action is taking place. But Foote has not specified any date for his play, and World War I is mentioned as a past event.

Michael Wilson's direction is exemplary, keeping the sister speaking a monologue in the spotlight while the other sisters remain in repose and in shadow, never distracting from the flow of words so precisely chosen and musically tuned by one of America's most literary playwrights.

"The Carpetbagger's Children" can be added to the list of Foote's most satisfying plays including "The Traveling Lady," "A Trip to Bountiful," and "The Young Man from Atlanta" that won the Pulitzer for drama in 1995. And he has another new play, "The Actor," ready for production, about a young actor resembling Foote when he was starting out with the American Actors Company in New York 70 years ago.

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