There’s something to be said for staking out a small patch of land and tending it meticulously. The emotional and physical territory of Horton Foote may not be terribly expansive, but it’s been developed with such tender care that it continues to produce flavorful, delicately spiced fare.
Foote’s newest play is among his more minimalist works: It is structured as a trio of monologues that connect only at a few glancing junctures. Audiences out of sympathy with Foote’s restrained, fine-spun approach to drama may find the play agonizingly static: Watching it is not unlike listening to elderly relatives rehash the sepia-toned past, complete with digressions and repetitions and the occasional aimless reverie. But it is acted with splendid simplicity and subdued warmth by a trio of actresses — Roberta Maxwell, Jean Stapleton and Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter) — whose talents bring enough kindling to keep the play’s embers constantly aglow during the course of its brief running time.
The monologue format seems a dangerous choice for Foote — even his more traditionally structured plays are not exactly packed with eye-popping action. But it’s also a natural one for a writer noted for skilled, finely wrought portraiture. And it’s subtly linked here to the play’s themes. The three sisters depicted are united by ineradicable family feeling, but experience also has required each to turn to her inner resources to meet life’s trials.
The sisters’ father, the carpetbagger of the title, was a man who insisted on the primacy of the family unit and its assets, but his behavior ultimately splintered the family and had a poisonous effect on more than one of his daughters’ lives. This idea is echoed in the production’s design, which keeps each of the three sisters in a separate space on Jeff Cowie’s tasteful set, bathed in a small pool of Rui Rita’s warm lighting.
As the title indicates, the sisters are the offspring of a Union man who settled in the Confederate town of Harrison, Texas, Foote’s familiar turf, during Reconstruction. As a result, a sense of isolation was instilled in the family at an early age, although their real-estate wealth gave them a stature in town that was unassailable.
Maxwell’s Cornelia first spells out the basics of the family history. It was she who would become the custodian of her father’s massive land holdings after the death of the eldest and most prized daughter, Beth. The lone son in the mix, whose benign insignificance is symbolized by his absence from the play, was never much good at business.
Papa’s insistence that all the family land be kept together is a source of peculiar pride for Cornelia, although by the end of the play we have come to realize that it is more a burden than a privilege. The girls’ parents saw gold-diggers at every window and discouraged their children from marrying.
Stapleton’s amusingly scattered Grace Ann defied Papa’s will and eloped with a disreputable sort; she was instantly banished from the family, and only welcomed back to the fold at her father’s funeral. Later she and her husband dared to sue the family to get control of her inheritance; Cornelia icily bought them off with a cash payment that they quickly ran through. As Grace Ann recounts this saga with a mixture of gossipy intimacy and fluttery graciousness, we nevertheless see the damage caused by Papa’s attitudes begin to slowly accumulate.
Although Grace Ann was banished to a life of genteel poverty with her husband and daughter, Maxwell’s Cornelia may have felt most deeply the isolating effects of the family’s legacy. Sissie was allowed to marry after her fiance signed away all rights to the family inheritance, but Cornelia remained a spinster and, ironically, it is she who almost falls prey to a designing suitor. Maxwell’s elegantly restrained performance gently hints at the essential sadness of her life — a sadness deepened by a smart self-awareness that her sisters don’t possess.
Director Michael Wilson has drawn first-rate, nicely complementary performances from all three actresses. The range of ages among them seems a bit extreme, but as they echo and occasionally engage each other in their reveries on the family history, a sense of profound mutual affection seems to unite them. All three performers are comfortably attuned to the casual, colloquial rhythms of Foote’s monologues, which never strike a false note as they reveal painful truths about their lives that the women themselves are unable to see.