Second in the prestige-minded TNT Screenworks collection, Horton Foote’s new TV play makes a stab at revealing a mid-l930s pig-headed, hot-tempered smalltown Texan to himself through a series of dreadful incidents in his and his family’s life. At times high drama, at other times overblown melodrama, the loosely structured “The Habitation of Dragons,” under Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s intense direction, plays like unedited Lone Star O’Neill.
Belligerent Leonard Tollivar (an earnest Frederic Forrest) doesn’t think much of brother George (Brad Davis’ last role before his death is a tight, well-thought-out portrayal) running for the burg’s city attorney; Leonard is banking on his brother-in-law Billy Dalton (Horton Foote Jr.) winning the post.
Leonard’s wife Margaret (Hallie Foote in a stunningly definitive study), with her own fish to fry, secretly carries on an affair with Leonard’s farm partner Wally (Elias Koteas).
The Tollivars, parents of two young boys, live at the comfortable family home where widowed Mama (Jean Stapleton), looking concerned and folding socks, tries to keep some balance.
But George is sore because Leonard told him long ago he’d support him for that political plum. George, broke, sets up his practice in the house; meanwhile , dead Papa’s long-lost brother Virgil (stingingly realized by Pat Hingle) turns up to tell all that Papa killed himself years ago.
The teleplay’s first act, with peripheral characters turning up like comments or expedients, could use a scorecard to sort out the folks and their connections.
Cousin Helen (Maureen O’Sullivan) serves as a confidante, and Lester Whye (David Smith), who once killed his wife’s lover, slips speechlessly in and out of the action like a wraith.
A blackmailing boarding house owner (Joanna Miles) steps in to boot the play in another direction and Lonny Johnson (Hawthorne James), a black man who grew up with George and Leonard, eases out of the story before it’s half done.
Guilt and death, permeating the drama, culminate in a family tragedy that Margaret accepts as a moral rebuke for her infidelity; she puts on a whopping commotion in the front yard as she grieves.
George and Leonard have a ripping, unmodulated fracas in the drawing room; as with many of the emotional excursions, it just fades away.
Foote’s dialogue at times is crisp as ever — at others, as in unnecessary confabs, it clogs the action.
Designer Vaughan Edwards provides superb surroundings in and around the old house for the goings-on.
David Shire’s score is gentle and encouraging and Lindsay-Hogg’s helming, Paul Laufer’s camerawork, Claudia Finkle’s editing create an impressive sense of live TV.