Some things a-Foote: Festival of Texas writer’s work continues with hits (Uptown), misses (WTT)

FAMILY SECRETS | Mom (Lucia Welch, standing center) and dad (T.A. Taylor, seated) don’t discuss the nature of their late son’s ‘roommate’ in an engaging ‘Young Man from Atlanta.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

As the Horton Foote Festival progresses among the local theater community, Dallas is privy to some of the Texas-born writer’s other works that might get eclipsed by his more famous works, the films The Trip to Bountiful and Tender Mercies. Despite not much that’s gay in the Foote oeuvre, Uptown Players digs out the one show with that certain touch with the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man from Atlanta.

An older Houston couple has some issues to iron out when the title fella comes to visit. Will Kidder (T.A. Taylor), the patriarch of a well-to-do family in 1950s Houston, is talking to his like-a-son-associate Tom (Kevin Moore) about the death of his son Bill, who drowned. The gist of the play happens when we’ve already glimpsed the title character reaching out to the family. The Kidders first meet Bill’s “friend,” Randy Carter, at his funeral, where his constant contact unnerves Will but touches his wife, Lily Dale (Lucia A. Welch). Lily Dale even loans the man a large sum of money from her Christmas allowance, which Will later needs access to.

We’re supposed to get the impression that this young man was more than a roommate to Bill and that the Kidders just aren’t going to speak that-which-must-not-be-named. But as Lily Dale talks about the money she’s given him for his mother’s operation and sister in dire straits, we can’t pinpoint if Carter is a scammer or something more important.

Young Man gets off to a weak start with talky exposition, but we get drawn into the Kidders’ emotional evolution through Willi’s layoff and their mourning. Will has more insight to why his son would walk into a lake until the water was over his head without liking to swim; Lily Dale is in more denial. And while they have lived the high-life for such a long time, the Kidders discover they may actually have to live a life without facades.

What sounds like heavy drama is punctuated by nice bits of humor and lightheartedness, so they play is never weighed down like it could be.

The play pretty much belongs to Taylor, though the supporting cast is strong. Welch behaves with appropriate Southern housewifery, mostly smiling through the pain of their late son, who drowned. When she’s not around her husband, she longs with graceful sadness around her housekeeper Clara (an excellent Yolanda Williams).

As her stepfather Pete, Gordon Fox strikes the right balance of crotchety and tender.

Moore’s performance is a bit too much, with the overdone facial gestures and deep-voiced acting. On the opposite end, Stan Graner’s work in a brief scene as Kidder’s boss is nuanced to perfection. With subtle posturing and inflection, he delivers authority, friendliness and discomfort in having to fire Kidder. Tippi Hunter and Amanda Denton enter the show briefly as the Kidders’ former housekeeper and Will’s secretary, respectively. It felt as though Hunter’s appearance was supposed to have more meaning, but we never quite see how that scene moved much forward. Blake Blair as Pete’s nephew is a tall drink of yum and charms with lanky fashion.

We may never quite know much about The Young Man From Atlanta, but Uptown Players made a dramatic gem in helping us trying to figure him out and giving us a bit more insight into Horton Foote’s works.

— Rich Lopez


JUST STAY PUT | A young mother (Misty Vinters, left) discovers her husband is a jerk in the tedious Foote entry ‘The Traveling Lady.’ (Photo by Mark Oristano)

The actors in The Traveling Lady all suffer from a bad case of Foote-in-mouth disease: The tendency of all Southern accents to bleed together. There are Texas twangs and Tennessee drawls and a whol’ passel’uh cornpone variations in between, but wouldn’t it be nice if a cast of characters from the same small town sounded like, you know, each other?

That’s perhaps a minor point, but the pacing of this entry in the Foote Fest, courtesy of WaterTower Theatre, doesn’t leave much else to think about as it dries on stage like oil-based matte paint: slowly, and with a dull finish.

Foote’s style has been described as Chekhov-meets-Faulkner; personally, I prefer my Chekhov fighting Klingons — even when it’s bad, at least something happens. Nothing much happens in Traveling Lady, a fact emphasized by Marion Castleberry’s sluggish direction. He seems to know more about the text of the play than the texture of theater — there’s a lugubrious, academic tone to this trite 1954 story about the awkward reunion of a wife and her husband, who’s been in prison. (The demonization of alcohol makes it feel like a PSA for the Temperance League.)

As storytelling, it’s OK; as a play, it’s old-fashioned and stodgy, with too much standing around, not enough moving around (where’s the traveling promised, even if it’s just across the stage?). Why don’t the characters do anything, even if it’s just drying dishes? Clare Floyd Devries’ marvelous set is much more interesting than anything the actors are doing.

It probably wouldn’t matter much if they did bother acting. Other than Dorothy Deavers as a dotty old woman, there’s almost no comedy in this lazy stroll down Tobacco Road. The lady can travel if she wants; I’m staying put.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 8, 2011.

—  John Wright