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The Death of Papa

In "The Death of Papa," playwright Horton Foote and director Michael Wilson capture the essence of emotional and financial stresses consuming a Southern family of the 1920s after its patriarch dies. Despite a misguided central performance by Matthew Broderick, this conclusion of Foote's nine-play cycle is an otherwise charming production. An unprecedented (for the Playmakers Rep) array of acting talent turns a placid script into an engaging story, built around the widowed Mary Vaughn (Ellen Burstyn) and her duress about turning over the management of the family farm to her only son, Brother Vaughn (Broderick). Nearly the whole town knows of Brother's irresponsible ways and heavy drinking.

With:
Cast: Matthew Broderick (Brother Vaughn), Ellen Burstyn (Mary Vaughn), Hallie Foote (Elizabeth Robedaux), Polly Holliday (Corella Davenport), Ray Virta (Horace Robedaux Sr.), Nicholas Shaw (Horace Robedaux Jr.), Nikki Coleman-Andrews (Gertrude), Kevin M. Butler (Walter), "Joan J." Mathis (Eliza), Julie Fishell (Inez Kirby), Dede Corvinus (Ida Harris), Ray Dooley (Will Borden).

Although Brother squanders his fortune, mismanages the farm, alienates his tenant farmers, is seen drunk all over town, and even commits murder, on stage he doesn’t have a hair out of place, presenting himself as a most genteel ne’er-do-well. The role begs for a rowdy, roguish drunk.

Broderick’s knee surgery two weeks before opening night produced a noticeable limp, but should not have prevented him from showing the character’s frustrations. A contrast would better complement Burstyn’s splendid blend of grief and worry over funeral planning and the family’s assets. Daughter Elizabeth Robedaux (Hallie Foote) and mother-in-law Corella Davenport (Polly Holliday) are sympathetic and supportive, but not able to help solve the Vaughn family’s problems. Holliday provides comic relief with verbal attacks on the compulsive reading and curiosity of her grandson Horace (Nicholas Shaw): “He won’t be able to take care of himself because he’ll be too educated.” Shaw, picked from a local elementary school, is adorable and inquisitive.

Although Horace Jr. gets little attention from his father (Ray Virta), the boy’s conversations with the family’s young, black nurse (Nikki Coleman Andrews) set up the dramatic impact of her accidental drowning. The nurse’s funeral provides the opportunity for one of the play’s many simple speeches about everyday family life.

Jeff Cowie’s set, dominated by a large tree, Michael Lincoln’s lighting and McKay Coble’s period costumes enhance the story’s mood. Although a play of greater depth might be expected of Foote, this cast, even with Broderick’s too low-key performance, makes the production worthwhile.

The Death of Papa

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.

Production: A PlayMakers Repertory Company presentation of a play in one act by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. Set, Jeff Cowie.

Creative: Costumes, McKay Coble; lighting, Michael Lincoln; sound, Johnna Doty; production stage manager, Julie A. Fife. Opened Feb. 8, 1997, at University of North Carolina's Paul Green Theater. Reviewed Feb. 14; 504 seats; $32 top. Running time: 1 HOUR, 42 MIN.

Cast: Cast: Matthew Broderick (Brother Vaughn), Ellen Burstyn (Mary Vaughn), Hallie Foote (Elizabeth Robedaux), Polly Holliday (Corella Davenport), Ray Virta (Horace Robedaux Sr.), Nicholas Shaw (Horace Robedaux Jr.), Nikki Coleman-Andrews (Gertrude), Kevin M. Butler (Walter), "Joan J." Mathis (Eliza), Julie Fishell (Inez Kirby), Dede Corvinus (Ida Harris), Ray Dooley (Will Borden).

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