No one can accuse Horton Foote of not singing for his supper (or his father). Exhibits A, B and C are now on display, individually and collectively, at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre — a nine-hour aria of kind hearts and hard knocks, spanning the first 30 years of the previous century in the journey of one Horace Robedaux (read: Horton Foote Sr.), making his way unsteadily into the real world (read: rural Texas).
Foote Jr., who died last March at 92, spent his last two years making individual acts out of the nine full-length plays he grouped together under the title The Orphans' Home Cycle — a hard task by any means, but harder still considering it was his own personal history he was whittling away.
This condensation was first suggested to Foote back in the early '90s by the artistic director of Hartford Stage, Michael Wilson, who premiered Cycle there last year as a trilogy of three hour-long acts spread over three evenings.
"It consumed Horton's final two years," he says. "He was obsessed with it. We tried to keep the structure in a way to reflect the original nine full-lengths, but, in essence, Horton was creating a new work out of them. I think it's masterful what he did." Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter and foremost interpreter, joined director Wilson in assisting the author in deconstructing and reconstructing his original material. She says, "He figured out that the main thing was 'Follow Horace...If I get into trouble, I go back to: Where is Horace in the story at this point?'"
"It took him a while to figure that out," Wilson says, "but once he did, he would become quite ruthless. He was not precious about his own work. He was constantly experimenting. They were always interlocking plays, and I think he found a way to unlock them so that they now meld together and focus on the continuing storyline of Horace.
"One could argue Horace is more off to the sidelines in the play about his sister, Lily Dale, but the way it has been adapted, he is the central figure."
That happens to be the only play in Part One - The Story of a Childhood that is not new to New York. Roots in a Parched Ground, which commences the cycle, finds a 12-year-old Horace (Dylan Riley Snyder) in his hometown of Harrison, coping first with the death of his dad from drink, then with a hard-nosed stepfather who leaves him behind to be reared by his grandparents.
Convicts, which follows two years later in 1904, forces some grim realities about life and death on the young Horace, as he guards the convict labor brought in to work a plantation six miles from Harrison. Though never staged, it was filmed in 1991 with Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones and Lucas Haas in the roles played here by James DeMarse, Charles Turner and Henry Hodges. Bill Heck takes over the Horace part permanently in the Lily Dale episode, trying to effect a happy union with his mother and sister but foiled by a hard nose-turned-to-granite.
Two of the three plays in Part Two - The Story of a Marriage were also filmed, by PBS' "American Playhouse," and accorded a limited theatrical release: Courtship, in which Horace finds his life partner, Elizabeth Vaughn, and Valentine's Day, in which he makes peace with his new in-laws. William Converse-Roberts and Hallie played the romantic pair in both films and in 1918, which starts Part Three - The Story of a Family. Two plays only regionally produced — Cousins and The Death of Papa — conclude the cycle. (Before Horace settled into marriage, there was a pre-Elizabeth dalliance, The Widow Claire, which leads off Part Two.)
As keepers-of-the-flame go, they don't come any brighter than Hallie, in Wilson's view. "It's been amazing having her in the room at rehearsals to give the real family history. She brought in photo albums and letters, tactile things that the actors could see and touch that really made the plays very specific. She hasn't had more than a day off at a time since June. She is in seven of the nine acts of The Orphans' Home Cycle, playing four different characters, and supervising the entire project with me as the playwright's representative.
"Up at Hartford, going from Dividing the Estate into To Kill a Mockingbird and into the pre-production and performance of this, as well as continuing to shepherd what future life Orphans might have, has been an enormous time commitment for Hallie."
Her father's daughter, Hallie gives that an all-in-a-day's-work reaction. As an actress, she harbors no resentment at seeing her old roles on new faces. "Oh, I think it's terrific," she cheerfully counters. "It makes me see that there are all these younger people coming up who identify with his work and understand it. I find it very gratifying."
Wilson sees a Footehold on the horizon: "My hope is that — I think that our hope, together — is that the Cycle is going to kick off a whole reexamination of all of his performance work and that we'll be seeing him in the American theatre repertoire as much as we see Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Horton Foote will be a playwright where we go to his stories to understand ourselves."