Writer expands reach into theater capitals

CHICAGO — You might call it a Foote fetish.

Theaters these days seem like they just can’t get enough of Horton Foote, the prolific American dramatist who in more than 60 plays has chronicled the vast changes that have come to the small town of Harrison, Texas, a fictitious stand-in for the playwright’s own lifelong hometown of Wharton, outside Houston.

While Foote has consistently seen his plays produced throughout the country, he is arguably only now being fully embraced in the urban areas that form the nation’s theatrical capitals.

Just two years ago, Ensemble Studio Theater restaged “The Traveling Lady” Off Broadway, around the same time New York’s Signature Theater revived “The Trip to Bountiful,” winning rapturous reviews and four Lucille Lortel Awards.

That production’s director, Harris Yulin, and star Lois Smith are revisiting “Bountiful” as the centerpiece of a Horton Foote Festival currently running at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. The March 10 opening of “Bountiful”follows well-received productions of the more obscure play “Talking Pictures” and two one-acts, “Blind Date” and “The Actor.”

Primary Stages‘ Off Broadway production last fall of “Dividing the Estate” is among the best reviewed shows of the Gotham season so far, and has been tipped to return later this year on the Rialto.

And while the details have not been released, another N.Y. theater has expressed interest in producing Foote’s expansive, nine-play “Orphan’s Home Cycle.” So as he approaches his 92nd birthday on March 14, the indefatigable scribe spends some of his days adapting that cycle to be performed over a two-day span.

It’s a veritable flurry of Foote and a worthy climax to a career — a crescendo of high-profile exposure that may yet place him on the pedestal that has so far been reserved for his more canonical contemporaries, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, or the comparatively youthful whippersnapper Edward Albee, who’s a decade younger than Foote and knows something about career third acts.

“Those other writers found a place for themselves at a very early age on Broadway,” says Robert Falls, Goodman’s artistic director, who staged Foote’s last Broadway engagement, Pulitzer-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta.” “Horton, while he’s always written plays, has been more celebrated for his television and film work.”

Foote had connections in Hollywood because he attended the acting school at Pasadena Playhouse in the 1930s. (He depicts his decision to go, and his parents’ agonizing, loving efforts to dissuade him, in the autobiographical “The Actor.”) He then played a serious role in what’s considered the Golden Age of television. “The Trip to Bountiful” first appeared, starring Lillian Gish, in 1953 on “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.”

Foote honed his craft, focusing on story and character. “The only thing you were told was that you could only have two cameras, you couldn’t have a lot of cutaways, and you certainly couldn’t edit,” he recalls. “So you made all these adjustments, and in the meantime you were encouraged to write things that were meaningful to you, not to write to please a sponsor.”

In a strange way, the acclaim Foote achieved in film and television — he’s won two screenwriting Oscars and an Emmy for his adaptation of William Faulkner’s “Old Man” — has not always served his stature in the theater world.

“In my day, if you were a playwright, then that’s what you wanted to do, and it was almost a sin to even think about Hollywood,” Foote explains. Many of his television colleagues, once ensconced in Hollywood, never looked back at the theater. Foote offers Paddy Chayefsky as the prime example.

That was never an option for Foote, who was always sure of his identity: “I’m a playwright, with a capital ‘P.’ “

Of course, he’s no slouch in other media. Numerous works appeared in the early days of TV, and he won Oscars for his scripts “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies” (adapted and original, respectively), and a third nom for his “Bountiful” screenplay.

“Maybe because he’s a quieter writer, and the camera loves his work, it’s taken longer for us to recognize his mastery as a theatrical writer,” suggests Falls.

Foote has also been pigeon-holed as a regional scribe who writes about ordinary people living ordinary lives, not exactly the kind of work that cries out for attention. But over time, with greater exposure to his work, the universal nature of his themes and the extraordinary sensitivity with which he draws his characters has created fans of some of the nation’s most prominent critics.

“He has always written what he knows,” says Primary Stages artistic director Andrew Leynse. “And he doesn’t set out to create a masterpiece. He just writes his plays, and his plays have aged like fine wine.”

The recognition continues to come in stages. First, there was renewed interest in his early work like “Bountiful,” but now there’s growing attention to his work from the 1980s and ’90s: Both “Talking Pictures” and “Dividing the Estate” seem to speak to the current moment. The former is set in 1929, as the characters confront economic anxieties but also have no clear sense of the trauma the nation is about to endure. “Estate” shows a family on the edge of disaster, losing their home to foreclosure during the late ’80s oil bust in Houston.

Foote also is being recognized for different qualities in his writing now, as critics acknowledge that the elegiac sweetness associated with the playwright is just one element of his style.

“What I most love about ‘Dividing the Estate’ is that it’s hysterical,” offers Leynse. “The comedy is so true to life.”

Adds Falls: “Everything people think about Horton Foote’s writing is not necessarily correct. People think he’s a sentimental writer; he’s not at all. He’s very tough-minded. They think he’s a simple writer, who writes simple stories. He doesn’t; he writes very complex stories. They think of his plays as small, but he writes big plays for ensembles, too.”

“Some writers percolate up to the top,” says Leynse. “Some of it’s luck. Some of it’s perseverance. But it’s exciting that with Horton’s resurgence, there’s still more in his body of work for us to discover.”

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