Horton Foote is an American original, and so it may seem disrespectful to use other originals to pin down his work, but “The Young Man From Atlanta”– which is premiering at the Signature Theater Company as part of a season devoted to his work — begs such questions. A curious amalgam of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (an unimaginable hybrid, to be sure), “Young Man” is as mysterious a play as has ever been offered by Foote, longtime chronicler of comings and goings in fictional Harrison, Texas. Sometimes maddening, this is nonetheless a beautifully wrought and moving play.
Arthur Miller comes to mind because “Young Man” opens in 1950 in Houston, with a scene in which Will Kidder (Ralph Waite) is told that the wholesale food distribution company he helped build needs fresh young talent to deal with a changing postwar economy. His services are no longer needed, says Ted Cleveland Jr. (Seth Jones), son of the late owner. Will has just paid cash for a $ 200,000 house, flush in the belief that he lives in the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. And he’s just found out he has a heart condition.
But those aren’t the only things to have soured Will’s life. His 37-year-old son, living in an Atlanta boarding house, took it in his mind one day during a trip to Florida to drown himself in a lake. It turns out that $ 100,000 of his savings are gone. And suddenly Will and his somewhat flighty wife, Lily Dale (Carlin Glynn), are being accosted by the son’s roommate, the young man of the title. Though he never appears, it’s clear almost instantly — this is where Williams comes in — that Will and Lily Dale didn’t know their treasured son very well. And the young man from Atlanta, having exhausted the money supply there, has set his sights on his victim’s parents.
All of this unfolds in the careful, unsensationalistic style that is a hallmark of Foote’s writing. In the manner of real life, much information is repeated and drawn out as new characters enter the picture. And as in real life, the mundane also must on occasion supplant the extraordinary. Thus housekeeper Clara (Frances Foster) responds to each new catastrophe with a catalog of her own problems, and when an ancient housekeeper (Beatrice Winde) who once cared for the son pays a visit, respect must be paid. Lily Dale’s confession that she has been giving money to the roommate against Will’s orders compels her to reveal another kind of betrayal years earlier, nearly turning the whole thing into a surreal comedy.
Some of this business slows the action to a snail’s pace, but anyone familiar with Foote knows action is beside the point and the payoff will be worth any idiosyncrasies of dramaturgy. That is certainly the case here, as Will and Lily Dale finally come to terms not only with their grief, but with the larger truths abouttheir lost child. By the time the play ends, we can see Will’s sad, wrecked spirit drawn like a death mask across Waite’s face, and Lily Dale, once resilient as a spaldeen, now seems utterly defeated. They face the future with little hope.
Director Peter Masterson knows this dramatic landscape well and trusts it, never pushing the actors or the material.
In addition to the fine performances mentioned, James Pritchett is memorable as Lily Dale’s live-in stepfather, Pete, a man of exceptionally few words; Devon Abner is aptly unctuous as the protege who replaces Will; and Michael Lewis is eerie as Carson, another young man from Atlanta who may or may not be Pete’s grandnephew.
Tech credits are spare but serviceable.