Theater review by Melissa Rose Bernardo
Even the most fervent Horton Foote fan might be hard-pressed to explain the appeal, much less the Pulitzer Prize, of The Young Man From Atlanta. The playwright was renowned for his delicate, layered storytelling, but this 1995 drama lays it on thick. Within the first few minutes, proud Houstonian Will Kidder (Aidan Quinn) mentions his “slight heart condition.” Soon he blurts out the entire tragic tale of his 37-year-old son Bill’s recent death, the newfound religious fanaticism consuming his wife, Lily Dale (Kristine Nielsen, kooky but relatively reserved), and the suspicious appearance of Bill’s, ahem, roommate, the much-discussed but never-seen title character. And then Will, who has just plunked down $200,000 (in 1950!) for a new house, gets canned from his grocery-wholesaling gig: “We need younger men in charge here,” says the tactless Ted Cleveland Jr. (Foote veteran Devon Abner). That’s a lot for even someone with a good heart to take in a single scene.
The steely-eyed Aidan Quinn, back on stage after seven seasons on CBS’s Elementary, proves an ideal red-blooded Texas businessman, and the perfect anchor in an often shaky piece. (As Lily Dale’s stepfather, the family peacemaker, Stephen Payne looks uncomfortable in even his best moments.) And go-to Foote director Michael Wilson, who helmed 2007’s superb Dividing the Estate and 2009’s nine-play masterwork the Orphans’ Home Cycle, at least gives this head-scratcher of a play a handsome production at the Signature, with a couple of inspired touches. The preshow turn-off-your-cellphone announcement was recorded by the late Foote himself, and the role of a secretary—now heard only as a voice on an intercom—bears the unmistakable twang of Hallie Foote, the ultimate interpreter of her father’s work. It wouldn’t be a Horton Foote joint without her.
Signature Theatre Company (Off Broadway). By Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. With Aidan Quinn, Kristine Nielsen. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.