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Theatre in Review: The Young Man from Atlanta (Signature Theatre)

Kristine Nielsen, Aidan Quinn. Photo: Monique Carboni.

Early on in The Young Man from Atlanta, Lily Dale, a frivolous yet frightened and grief-ridden Texas matron, discusses her favorite conspiracy theory. It is 1950, but Lily Dale, who spends much of her time in the past, can't get over the notion that, during the war years, Eleanor Roosevelt "got all the maids in Houston to join the Disappointment Club." Explaining this imaginary institution, she says, "A maid would say that they were going to work for you. You would arrange the hours and the salary, and she would be so nice and polite, then the day she was supposed to start work she wouldn't show up." Of Mrs. Roosevelt, she adds, "She took out all her personal unhappiness on the South." Will, Lily Dale's husband, makes short work of this nonsense -- but in a way, the effort is fruitless, as nearly everyone in the plays of Horton Foote is a member of the Disappointment Club, thwarted by life and looking for a reason to keep going when love, faith, and worldly success have deserted them.

This is especially so of The Young Man from Atlanta, which centers on Will, a glad-handing wholesale grocer who is about to discover what happens when the goodwill on which he has built his life runs out. Ultimately, he and Lily Dale are left alone to face a family secret that remains undiscussable even though it resides in plain sight. Foote's plays are frequently exquisite cameos of small-town life, defined by lost opportunities and a yearning for the past; this piece, set in bustling postwar Houston, traps its leading characters in an agonizing present, the resolution of which requires more strength to resolve than they possess.

"I want the best," Will says. "The biggest and the best. I always have." Having worked his way up from poverty, he sees himself as a model American businessman, complete with a showplace home into which he has sunk most of his savings. (Will and Lily Dale figure in several other Foote plays, including one named after her.) In truth, he and Lily Dale look rather lost in their enormous sunken living room, and, in middle age, she is left with little to do but shop, gossip, and play the piano. But Lily Dale has abandoned music, following the tragedy that has blighted the family: Their adult son, Bill, aged thirty-seven, has recently died, in a swimming accident during a business trip to Florida.

As Will candidly informs a young colleague, there are many unresolved facts surrounding his son's death -- not least the question of why he walked into a deep lake when he couldn't swim. At least, Will can deal with intimations of suicide; other details hint at possibilities that are, to him, unspeakable. Something of a golden boy in his youth, Bill, "who was artistic, like his mother," relocated to Atlanta after the war, living in a boardinghouse and pursuing a career about which his parents knew little. He shared his life with a "roommate" ten years his junior; at the funeral, Will notes, the younger man "got hysterical and cried more than my wife." After the burial, he stayed in Houston, repeatedly trying to contact Will, who wants nothing to do with him. I doubt I have to draw you a picture, but what seems obvious to the audience cannot be directly addressed by characters living in midcentury Houston.

This scene ends with a brutal reversal that shocks Will out of his complacency; suddenly without a job, he finds himself at home, trying to handle Lily Dale, whose involvement with the young man is far deeper than he suspected. Will also suffers from heart trouble, but, instead of resting, he tries to relaunch himself in business; it's not an easy task when the new home has used up his available cash and Lily Dale has been spending her money on the young man, who -- although he remains unseen -- comes bearing multiple tales of woe. (He also peddles dubious comforts, soothing Lily Dale with accounts of Bill's deep religious feeling.) That he is shaking down Lily Dale seems all too likely; further confirmation of this is offered by Carson, an interloper from the boardinghouse with knowledge of Bill and his friend. Then again, Foote refuses to provide dispositive evidence and he intimates that Carson might not be the most reliable of reporters. "Who are we to believe, Daddy?" Lily Dale asks Will. Who, indeed?

This is the first New York production of The Young Man from Atlanta since a 1997 Broadway staging by Robert Falls helped to earn the play the Pulitzer Prize. There is no greater Horton Foote authority than Michael Wilson, the director of the current edition, but this time his handling is a little wobbly. Some of this has to do with the casting of Kristine Nielsen as Lily Dale; one of our leading farceurs, she often seems -- in the first act, at least -- to be fighting her native comic instincts, initially creating a fluttery, flittering hausfrau who would be at home in a thirties screwball comedy. Also, Jeff Cowie has provided a set that is both overcomplicated and, in some respects, underdressed, even allowing for the fact that Will and Lily Dale haven't fully moved into their new house. It is built around a central courtyard, so that the enormous picture window looks out across an empty space at another heavily draped hallway, an arrangement that is distracting and leads to a certain amount of unnecessary running around upstage. At the same time, the stairs, at right and left, leading down into the living room, look strangely institutional; surely Lily Dale would have opted for wrought iron or some other decorative touch.

The pluses outweigh the minuses, however: In the second act, Nielsen finds her character's essential sadness, especially when angrily stopping a metronome as if to say that music is banned from her life forever and in a moment when, standing downstage, caught in a burst of sidelight, she suddenly strikes the most desolate of figures. She has a superb partner in Aidan Quinn, whose Will loses his sense of certainty, along with his composure; hear the loss, mixed with suppressed terror, in his voice as, tacitly admitting that his only son was a stranger, he says, "There was a Bill I knew and a Bill you knew and that's the only Bill I care to know about."

Providing solid support are Stephen Payne as Pete, Lily Dale's sympathetic, but helpless, stepfather; Jon Orsini as the slightly slippery Carson; Harriett D. Foy as the family's infinitely tactful, highly observant housekeeper; Devon Abner as the employer who deals a blow to Will's self-confidence; and, in a quietly stunning turn, Pat Bowie as an elderly former servant who drops in for a visit, offering a form of sympathy that scalds. Speaking about Bill to Will, she says, "You were bound and determined to make him a baseball player, too. Did he take to it?" -- thus making clear how clearly she saw the tragedy to come.

As mentioned, the set does have an appropriately unlived-in quality and David Lander's lighting adds an additional chilly patina. Van Broughton Ramsey's costumes, especially for the women, are right in period and clear about class distinctions. John Gromada's sound design reinforces his original music and a handful of ambient effects.

The finale of The Young Man from Atlanta finds Will and Lily Dale clinging to each other as the dark closes in. Foote, always charitable to his characters, does allow them the possibility of a way forward. But he also leaves them stuck with a pain that is all the more powerful for being ineffable. Their tragedy isn't that they lost their son; it's that they never really saw him for what he was -- or, rather, they did, but chose to look away. They loved a phantom, and the hints of truth he left behind are, to them, insupportable. Meanwhile, the young man from Atlanta continues to hover, just out of sight. -- David Barbour

(4 December 2019)

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