Horton Foote’s intimate memory play, successfully converted by the playwright to TV, confronts a young man’s crises, with director Peter Masterson supplying purposefulness to the period piece. Not a great play, it’s absorbing, uninterrupted theater — something PBS and commercial nets have too much laid aside.
Performed persuasively by Stockard Channing, Mary Stuart Masterson and Tim Guinee with chamber-music precision, the film reflects Foote’s sensitive observations on human relations and frailties as well as strengths. Playwright’s delicate way with moodiness never falters in the sad view of how people can hurt and be hurt.
Corella Robedaux (Channing), widow with two children — Lily Dale, 11, and Horace, 12 — has married Pete Davenport (Sam Shepard). Pete didn’t cotton to Horace, who was left behind in Harrison, Texas, while Corella and Lily Dale settled down with Pete in Houston.
In 1909, with Pete away, Corella secretly asks Horace (Guinee), now 19, to visit for a week. On the train, he encounters well-meaning Mrs. Coons (Jean Stapleton), who generates Horace’s salvation in several ways. When Horace says he doesn’t know if he’s been baptized, Coons warns him to get busy on that matter.
Corella greets him enthusiastically, but self-centered, shallow Lily Dale (Masterson) doesn’t think much of having her territory invaded. She loves stepdaddy Pete; plus, Horace talks too much about their dead father and the tune their father used to sing, “Lily Dale.”
Pete arrives home unexpectedly and makes no bones about his feelings toward Horace. Character of rigid Pete remains mostly in shadows as Corella, Horace and Lily Dale dance around glum truths. Lily Dale’s uncertain, cheery suitor, Will (John Slattery), begins working on Pete for his respect, and time slides by with surprising ease.
Despite expository dialogue that occasionally stalls the action, Foote summons up an engrossing work in which two of the three central people remain constant. Here’s serious, engaging television.
Channing’s concerned, tightly wound Corella, charged with conflicting maternalism and self-preservation, remains uncertain, as she should. Masterson’s prattling, insecure Lily Dale is wearing, but Guinee’s self-contained, uncomplaining, repressed Horace glows.
Shepard, admirably sustaining Pete’s antagonism toward Horace, develops the character’s gracelessness even further with his acceptance of Will. And Stapleton’s interludes — she reappears — are beautifully realized.
Slice-of-life entry is one of Foote’s nine-play cycle “The Orphan’s Home,” dramas based on Foote’s father’s autobiographical tales. Director Masterson coaxes the morose two-acter into a comfortable flow abetted by Don FauntLeRoy’s inspective lensing and lighting as Horace’s transition unfolds.
Michael Knue’s editing is superior, and art directors Jack Marty and Chris Henry have resourcefully detailed the turn-of-the-century ambience.
Production designer Barbara Haberecht provides a good, middle-class living area for the Davenport home and a realistic train interior for Horace’s commute. Jean-Pierre Dorleac’s costumes are authentic.
“Lily Dale” opened Off Broadway Nov. 20, 1986, at the Samuel Beckett Theater. Don Bloomfield played Horace, Molly Ringwald was Lily Dale, with Julie Heberlein as Corella. There’s plenty of room on TV for such adaptations — and, after all, there are eight other plays in “The Orphan’s Home.”