'The Orphans' Home Cycle'

Layers novelistic detail onto a deeply personal elegy for a time, a place and a people.

The condensed, three-part adaptation of the nine plays in “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” is now running in rep, playing its first single-day New York marathon Feb. 6. So it’s the perfect time to step back and appreciate the emotional expansiveness and melancholy beauty of this heartfelt epic, which intricately layers novelistic detail onto a deeply personal elegy for a time, a place and a people. The wry humor and sharp-eyed observations are a given with Horton Foote, as is the exquisite balance of compassion with unvarnished assessment. But it’s the humility and unfailing gentleness of the playwright’s voice that make the cumulative rewards of this theatrical experience so substantial.

The massive undertaking was co-produced by Hartford Stage and Signature Theater Company, where its run has been extended through May 8; a possible Broadway transfer remains in the mix for the fall. Based on the childhood, coming of age and adulthood of Foote’s father, the plays were written in the 1970s but not staged together as a whole in his lifetime. Commissioned by Hartford a.d. Michael Wilson, Foote completed drafts of the nine one-act versions presented here shortly before his death last March at age 92.

Set mainly in Harrison, Texas (the fictional stand-in for Foote’s birthplace, Wharton), the cycle is divided into three parts — “The Story of a Childhood,” “The Story of a Marriage” and “The Story of a Family” — each of them opening with elegantly choreographed, cinematic title sequences that set scene and tone. The action spans 1902-1928, backdropped by long-term sociological shifts such as the lingering aftereffects of the Civil War, the decline of the plantation aristocracy, the new opportunities of oil and industry, and by more defined historic signposts like WWI, the 1918 Flu Epidemic and the start of the Great Depression.

The key event that informs the entire arc of central character Horace Robedaux (played at various ages by Dylan Riley Snyder, Henry Hodges and Bill Heck) is the death of his alcoholic father when the boy is just 12. His mother, Corella (Annalee Jefferies), resettles in Houston, but while her new husband, Pete Davenport (Devon Abner), dotes on Horace’s kid sister Lily Dale (Jenny Dare Paulin), he has no use for Horace. Pete treats him as an outsider, responding with intimidating hostility whenever his wife reaches out to offer support to her son.

Left behind in Harrison with his parents’ divided families, Horace soon goes out on his own. At age 14, he works on an isolated plantation where convict labor has replaced slavery, then goes to business school in Houston. Back in Harrison, he falls in love and elopes with Elizabeth Vaughn (Maggie Lacey), whose well-heeled parents oppose the marriage.

Despite suffering devastating personal loss, Horace reveals himself to be a stable, thoroughly decent man, devoted to his family. He’s tireless in his struggle to make a living, first as a traveling salesman and later with a haberdashery store where he rankles old-guard locals by refusing to discriminate between white and black customers. He gradually earns the respect and affection of Elizabeth’s overprotective father (James DeMarse) and controlling mother (Hallie Foote), but his search for a sense of home pains Horace throughout his life.

Foote’s incomparable gifts as a storyteller are apparent at every turn. The writing is lovingly served by Wilson’s sensitive, evenly paced staging and by smart design choices across the board. The fluid, shifting panels of Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber’s set; the shorthand descriptiveness of Jan Hartley’s projections; the refinement of David C. Woolard’s costumes; and the soft sepia tones of Rui Rita’s lighting all make vital contributions to the atmospheric recreation of another era. Likewise John Gromada’s textured soundscape, his music score enhanced by piano recitals, popular and folk songs, hymns and war anthems.

But it’s the playwright’s uncanny ability to find universality in specificity that makes the cycle such a penetrating evocation of real peoples’ lives. The joys and hurts of the characters become a shared experience with the audience, and the echoes of war, economic instability, health crises and inescapable tragedy resonate with an amplitude and immediacy that suggest the plays could have been written yesterday. “How can human beings stand all that comes to them?” wonders Horace in the cycle’s most succinct distillation of its existential question. “How can they?”

While hardship and endurance are key factors, Foote’s voice is at its most sonorous in the central part, in which Horace’s discovery of love finds a worthy focus in the self-possessed stillness of Lacey’s enchanting Elizabeth. But there’s a richness of color and character throughout that makes the story’s pleasures unending. From disapproving old maids, gossips, simpletons and bible thumpers, to town drunks, fast women, crude rednecks and dissolute gamblers, these are familiar figures from many folksy tales of American life, but all are distinguished here by the authenticity and generosity of spirit that runs through Foote’s work.

While some of the acting in minor roles can veer toward the over-emphatic, the writing’s finer qualities generally are reflected in the performances. Particularly memorable are Hallie Foote’s well-meaning mother hen; DeMarse’s stern patriarch; Paulin’s oblivious monster of self-absorption, Lily Dale; Bryce Pinkham as Elizabeth’s weak-willed brother, haunted by his constant failings; Abner as a cold man given to petty jealousy; and Jefferies as a mother who masks her conflict over a neglected son with a compromising instinct for self-preservation.

But the wounded heart of it all is Heck’s Horace, the ache of abandonment and longing quietly rippling through every aspect of his stoic characterization. He provides a moving anchor for a saga in which the past continues to wash over the present and future, bringing deepening insights into the characters appearing before us, those departed, and as we reflect back over this masterful play cycle, into ourselves.

The Orphans' Home Cycle

Peter Norton Space; 160 seats; $225 top

Production

A Signature Theater Company, Hartford Stage presentation of a play cycle in three parts and nine acts by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. Sets, Jeff Cowie, David M. Barber; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Rui Rita; original music and sound, John Gromada; projections, Jan Hartley; wigs and hair, Mark Adam Rampmeyer; choreography and movement, Peter Pucci; fight direction, Mark Olsen; vocal and dialect coach, Ralph Zito; associate director, Maxwell Williams; production stage manager, Cole P. Bonenberger. Opened Nov, 19, 2009 (Part 1), Dec. 13 (Part 2), Jan. 26, 2010 (Part 3). Reviewed Jan. 27, 28. Running time: 8 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Horace Robedaux - Bill Heck Elizabeth Robedaux - Maggie Lacey Mrs. Vaughn - Hallie Foote Mr. Vaughn - James De Marse Corella Davenport - Annalee Jefferies Pete Davenport - Devon Abner Lily Dale Robedaux - Jenny Dare Paulin Brother Vaughn - Bryce Pinkham
With: Mike Boland, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, Justin Fuller, Jasmine Amii Harrison, Henry Hodges, Virginia Kull, Gilbert Owuor, Pamela Payton-Wright, Stephen Plunkett, Emily Robinson, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Dylan Riley Snyder, Charles Turner.

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