'The Orphans' Home Cycle'

An intimate American epic that's at once personal and panoramic.

Horton Foote spent his life combing the commonplace to write plain-spoken family dramas that are compassionate yet brutally honest, and startling in their depth and resonance. In “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” he folds nine related plays into three parts, crafting an intimate American epic that’s at once personal and panoramic. Foote finished editing the cycle shortly before his death this year at age 92; the plays follow the 26-year journey of Horace Robedaux, based on the writer’s father, from displaced child to struggling young adult to family patriarch.

In his final gift to the theater Foote has created a work of gentle existentialism. It asks: Why do things happen in life the way they do? That Foote’s central character ultimately accepts the mystery and finds his own sense of love, home and peace is as quietly profound as a zen master’s prayer.

Following its Hartford Stage run, the co-production moves in November to Off Broadway’s Signature Theater Company. Marathon performances presenting all nine plays over a single day debuted in the final weekends of the Connecticut engagement.

Each of the pieces can stand alone. (Indeed, most have been produced elsewhere, with four adapted into indie films and two plays premiering here.) Taken in a big gulp or longer sips over three perfs, this saga of three families responding to the changing social, economic and personal conditions in a single community becomes a transformative work and its production a stunning achievement.

The cycle is set during the first three decades of the 20th century in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, based on Foote’s native Wharton. Still reeling from the effects of Civil War and Reconstruction, further changes disrupt the town, including a shift in the economic dynamic, a war and a flu pandemic, all chillingly relevant today. But great events often happen offstage, save for the major one that begins the cycle: the death of Paul Horace Robedaux, father of 12-year-old Horace. For Foote and his characters, it’s the aftershocks from these seismic shifts that are most telling.

In the first act, young Horace (Dylan Riley Snyder) learns that his now-widowed mother (Annalee Jefferies) will not be taking him with her to Houston when she remarries. Off on his own in the second act, adolescent Horace (Henry Hodges) experiences the grim realities of life and death on a former plantation that now takes in convicts for its survival.

In the third act of part one — and in the cycle’s subsequent six acts — young adult Horace (Bill Heck) navigates through an unrelentingly harsh life, encountering rejection, betrayals, neglect and temptation until he finds the restorative love of Elizabeth Vaughan (Maggie Lacey), daughter of the town’s richest and most distinguished citizen.

Foote pruned his plays with a knowing hand; even having read the originals one would be at a loss to recall what’s missing. In fact, the drama feels expanded, with place-setting and transitional elements added to heighten the experience and make the combined work fluid.

Foote’s plays demand actors who can fill  in the spaces of his spare but far-from-simple words. Jefferies is extraordinary as she shows her remorse when she encounters the now-adult son she abandoned. As Horace’s eventual father-in-law, James DeMarse masterfully transitions in his feelings toward the young man from contempt to resignation to admiration.

Jenny Dare Paulin brings other colors to the self-centered obliviousness of Horace’s sister Lily Dale; in a single kiss Virginia Kull as the Widow Claire shows the emotional price she pays for her family’s security; and Pamela Payton-Wright brings dignity and complexity to all her roles, from religious matron to spinster aunt.

Heck succeeds in making a laconic, understated and stoic character engaging and touching — someone whose story is worth following. And Lacey gives a warm, grounded perf as Elizabeth.

As the family matriarch, Hallie Foote has a Southern mother-hen’s determination. Her loving blindness to her spoiled son’s disastrous failings — though nearly absurd in the final piece — stands in counterpoint to a parental devotion Horace never experienced.

Building on his close association with the playwright, Hartford a.d. Michael Wilson helms the staggering project — 22 actors, some 70 characters, more than 20 settings — with loving care and a sense of rich theatricality, humor and history.

The superb design team also echoes the Foote ethic with grace. The opus opens with the letters of the play’s title cinematically coming together, proclaiming the beginning of each installment, but also signifying the fragmented nature of the work that eventually pulls together into a greater whole.

Set designers Jeff Cowie and David Barber and lighting designer Rui Rita brilliantly create an evolving yet connected world of memory and meaning, as trains segue into parlors and then into swamps, dry good stores and cemeteries. David Woolard’s period costumes layer on character through detail.

John Gromada’s music and sound and Peter Pucci’s choreography are attuned to the importance song and dance hold in Foote’s world, where church hymns, town dances and popular music played on gramophones and uprights add to the story as well as establish a mood.

There are a few overstated perfs, some missed opportunities, a shaky scene or two (especially in the final part) and a few script conundrums not yet solved. But the cycle will have time to grow as it plays Off Broadway, where the first marathon is scheduled for February.

The Orphans' Home Cycle

Hartford Stage, Hartford, Conn.; 441 seats; $192 top

Production

A Hartford Stage, Signature Theater Company presentation of a play cycle in three parts and nine acts by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson.

Creative

Sets, Jeff Cowie, David Barber; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Rui Rita; original music and sound, John Gromada; projections, Jan Hartley; choreography, Peter Pucci; production stage manager, Cole P. Bonenberger. Opened Oct. 17, 2009. Reviewed, Oct. 24. Running time: 9 HOURS.

Cast

Horace Robedaux ... Bill Heck Elizabeth Robedaux ... Maggie Lacey Mary Vaughan ... Hallie Foote Henry Vaughan ... James DeMarse Corella Davenport ... Annalee Jefferies
With: Devon Abner, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, Justin Fuller, Jasmine Harrison, Henry Hodges, Georgi James, Virginia Kull, Gilbert Owuor, Jenny Dare Paulin, Pamela Payton-Wright, Bryce Pinkham, Stephen Plunkett, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Dylan Riley Snyder, Charles Turner.

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