With “Bhutan,” Daisy Foote confirms both her formidable talent as an emerging playwright and determination to chronicle the evolutionary changes in the life cycle of a small town in rural New Hampshire. But while she shares this archaeological approach with her playwright father, Horton Foote, the young scribe has given herself the harder job of engaging our sympathy for raw-boned country folk with none of the charms and graces of her father’s colorful Southern characters. That she succeeds so well in this moving drama about the disintegration of a tightly knit working-class family attests to the compassion behind her steely-eyed vision.
Plot’s tricky construction splits the narrative into two separate timelines that play in tandem and merge seamlessly under the smooth helming of Evan Yionoulis and the superior acting of his first-rate cast. Even the warm woodwork paneling and reflected lighting of the Cherry Lane’s handsomely refurbished auditorium help to create Foote’s bold theatrical illusion of a group of people frozen in time.
Observed in the first frame, the rough-and-tumble Conroy clan appears to be an affectionate and stable family unit. Money is tight, and the old farmhouse is falling down around their heads. But the Conroys own their modest homestead and a nice piece of land, the grownups have jobs, and the kids are in school — all critical components in the marginal existence of working-class families in rural America.
As they gather in their farmhouse kitchen (old and beat up, but warm and homey in Laura Hyman’s detailed set design) to plan the party for a son’s 18th birthday, the family is feeling the sharp pressure of certain changes in their lives — but they are still hanging tight.
After capturing that crucible moment in the Conroy history, the play suddenly shifts to a parallel time frame, falling on the same day the following year. The birthday boy is in prison, the family has broken up, and the fragile stability of their lives is gone for good. What on earth has happened here?
Foote answers that question incrementally, with shrewd character analysis and sharp insight into the social forces contributing to the dissolution of the Conroys’ way of life. Giving each character close individual attention, Foote presents a family unit held together by mother Mary, a feisty widow in her late 30s played with terrific grit and a heartbreaking sense of bewilderment by Tasha Lawrence. Although she’s given up on men, Mary is proud of her responsible position at the bank and finds satisfaction in bossing her family around.
Mary’s sister Sara (an easy-going, boisterous country girl in Amy Redford’s hearty and entirely likable perf) enjoys working at the vet’s and loves her longtime boyfriend — even though he just got married to someone else. In Sara’s uncomplicated world view, that was just a dumb goof and he’ll get over it.
Son Warren (a nice kid in Jedadiah Schultz’s open-faced perf) will be lucky to make it to high school graduation. But he’s already on the job at the plumbing outfit where his father worked, and he’s crazy-nuts in love with a girl he intends to marry — even though her rich family takes a dim view of their daughter’s social slumming.
Daughter Frances is the pivotal character in this household, and young Sarah Lord shows a profound understanding of the nuances in her character composition. Although she doesn’t articulate it directly, the teenager her brother teasingly calls “Lady” is acutely aware that her rural family’s old-fashioned way of life is doomed — and she may well be the engine of destruction.
Despite the great difference in their ages, Frances has made a friend of the educated and well-traveled 68-year-old woman “from the city” who has moved into the house next door and is helping her apply to Columbia U. Like one of Chekhov’s provincial sisters dreaming of Moscow, the girl yearns to visit Bhutan and all the other faraway places she has discovered through her new friend. At the same time, she’s smart enough to realize that in order to achieve her ambitions she will have to make a complete break with her family. In her sensitive portrayal of this conflicted girl, Lord (herself a student at Columbia) makes us acutely aware of the pain Frances is in.
But character psychology is only the half of it. Without being judgmental, Foote doesn’t flinch from suggesting that the structural framework of the rural working-class family doesn’t stand a chance of surviving intact in a modern world. And if they refuse to bend to the winds of change, even the strongest characters will break.
Mary hears the wind blowing outside, and her answer is to bar the door and shut it out. Wrapped up in her own bitter frustrations, she explodes in fury at the moneyed newcomers who are buying up the family farms and imposing their environmentally protective views on the town. (“Maybe people don’t wanna hear about it,” she snaps. “Maybe people don’t care.”) And coming from a society in which young people mainly get to travel by being shipped off to fight in foreign wars, she forbids Frances from going to Columbia (“Tell her to stop all the college crap,” she orders Warren) — or even next door to visit her friend.
Making her case with defiant vulgarity, Mary pops a beer, digs in her heels and takes a stand for the values (“families together, raising their animals”) she already knows are lost. “We are twisted together,” she lectures Frances, “you, me and your brother.” It may sound like a perverted view of family stability, but with the doors and windows barred to the world outside, it’s the only view she has.
Mary may look like the heavy here, with her closed mind and rigid attitude. But in one way or another, the entire family is in denial. Sara drinks. Warren dreams. And sensing that Frances is some kind of harbinger of the forces that are changing their lives, they all beat up on her. “It’s your turn now,” they tell her, and Frances knows that they mean it’s her turn to be miserable.
More than the developers on their doorstep and the city folks in their faces, what they all fear most is change itself. And for people like the Conroys, change really does mean the end of the world. Eyes wide and wounded, Schultz delivers the play’s most devastating line when the imprisoned Warren admits, “I’m changing, Frances, more every day.”
The sad thing is, no one in this domestic tragedy is really a villain, not even the bullying Mary. Foote knows that, which is why she can’t get these people out of her head — and why she will probably still be writing about them when she gets to be her father’s age.