Storyteller kept close to home

Playwright Horton Foote remembered

CHICAGO — I had the honor of meeting playwright Horton Foote — who passed away March 4, just short of his 93rd birthday — while he was in Chicago last year during the Goodman Theater’s festival devoted to his work.

We talked, as pretty much anyone who interviewed Foote must have done, about his hometown of Wharton, Texas (whose inhabitants’ stories inspired so much of his work); about his extraordinary career in early television; about adapting “To Kill a Mockingbird” for film; and about his lifelong devotion to the theater despite his success in other media (“I’m a playwright with a capital ‘P,'” he said).

He was genteel and generous, a great storyteller. When I asked Foote even a simple question, such as whether he was treated as a celebrity in Wharton, the tales emerged fully formed and with real emotional resonance.

“They pay no attention to me,” he responded with a chuckle. “No, I’m being silly about that. I was not in Wharton the night I won the Academy Award for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ But I didn’t think I was going to win so I didn’t go to the Academy. When I did win, you’d think I’d been elected president of the United States. My phone just rang and rang and rang.”

“Then my wife passed on and I was alone in Wharton at the time I got the Pulitzer,” he continued. “Early that morning a friend from New York called to say the rumor was I’d gotten the Pulitzer — don’t celebrate yet, but be prepared. And I did get it, and there was nobody in the house to talk to about it.  I went to my neighbor, and I took a walk downtown, and nobody knew or cared about getting the Pulitzer Prize. The Academy Award was much more important to them.  That taught me something or other.”

I asked Foote about the frequent comparisons of his work to Chekhov and whether “Dividing the Estate” — at the time heading to Broadway — was inspired by “The Cherry Orchard.” His response revealed both a true humility and a very real sense of himself as an artist.

“I’ve read Chekhov so much, and I think in many ways I’m closer to his short stories,” he said. “I admire him greatly, but there’s a certain line I know I can’t cross, because I wouldn’t know how to do it. I know how to appreciate it, but I don’t know how to do it. I’ve learned a lot from him, I think. I hope.”

Soon after I met with the playwright, I saw the extraordinary revival of “The Trip to Bountiful” starring Lois Smith that was the centerpiece of the Goodman festival.

I spent a lot of my life thinking of plays like “Bountiful” as sweet, nostalgic artifacts of days gone by, well-crafted but treacly. And, while I’m sure I’m revealing some snobbery in saying that, I’m also sure I’m not alone. But Foote’s reputation is still growing largely because his work remains capable of destroying our preconceptions and surprising the heck out of us.

That production, directed by Harris Yulin and originally staged Off Broadway by Signature Theater, was among the most purely honest, emotional experiences I’ve ever had in the theater.

Foote wrote “The Trip to Bountiful” — the story of an aging woman living with her son and daughter-in-law who desperately wants to escape back to her hometown — for television in 1953. That he was in his 30s at the time makes the play’s insight into old age especially remarkable. The character Carrie Watts certainly is filled with nostalgia, and Foote respects her yearning for the way things used to be, but the writing itself is absolutely clear-headed and crisp, shockingly unsentimental and genuinely profound.

It was also, in its own way, prophetic. When the play was performed at the Goodman last year, Foote was in his 90s, living with his daughter Hallie and her husband Devon Abner, who were playing Carrie’s son and daughter-in-law in the production.

That simple story about how connected we continue to feel to the place that formed us in a sense predicted Foote’s entire career. For more than 50 years after it was written, he continued to explore small-town Texas, how the world changes and yet how human beings stay the same.

Foote wrote his dialogue pretty much the way he spoke. His simple and straightforward style has served his plays well — heard spoken onstage, his language doesn’t sound dusty at all.

At the time of his death, Foote was working on adapting his nine-play “Orphans’ Home Cycle” to be performed over two days in a joint project of Hartford Stage and Signature scheduled to come to fruition later this year. Foote had never given up on his desire to see all the plays in the cycle turned into films, a plan that could ultimately be revived if the productions are successful.

“We’ve done five or six, and have three more to go,” he said. Then he looked up at me with a smile. “Got any money?”

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