As the grieving protagonist of Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta,” Rip Torn bellows with the conviction of a “born competitor,” a self-made Houston businessman in “the best city in the best country in the world.” Yet for all the Texan bluster, he and the play are most remarkable for their unstated sorrow and quiet, brooding sense of loss. Enigmatic at its best (and patchy at its worst), Foote’s compassionate, if dark, play about life’s frailty might itself be too fragile to support the exalted expectations with which it arrives on Broadway, but its affecting portrait of shattered illusions (and the first-rate cast that presents it) won’t soon be forgotten.
Torn plays Will Kidder, a 63-year-old, cowboy-booted businessman whose 40-year devotion (the year is 1950) to his company doesn’t prevent the firm’s new, young owner from replacing Will with a younger man. The firing comes at a bad time: Will has just built a big home (nicely rendered in ’50s upper-middle-class style by set designer Thomas Lynch), ordered a new car and, by far worst of all, has yet to recover from the drowning death six months prior of his only child, 37-year-old Bill.
While Will has buried his grief with work, wife Lily Dale Kidder (Shirley Knight) has turned to religion, silently reading Bible passages beneath barely suppressed sobs. Her sorrow more evident than her husband’s, Lily Dale also has found some comfort in her son’s “roommate,” a 27-year-old man who gives the play its title but is never seen by the audience. The young man lived with Bill in Atlanta, and tells Lily Dale exactly what she wants to hear: that Bill had found religion, was happy — and did not commit suicide. So grateful is she for these comforting notions that she has given the destitute young man thousands of dollars, a practice she keeps hidden from her husband, who has forbidden any contact with the friend.
But when Will must ask his wife for money to start a new business, the sad shape of her bank account forces her to come clean. What goes unspoken (though it’s made clear) are Will’s suspicions that his son and the young man shared more than friendship. Were they lovers? Was the young man a hustler, blackmailing Bill and prompting the suicide? The play offers only hints, avoiding revelations as carefully as Will and Lily Dale avoid facing the truth about their beloved son. “There was the Bill I knew and the Bill you knew,” Will says to Lily Dale, “and that’s the only Bill I care to know about.”
Secondary characters are woven into the simple plot, some with more success than others. Pete (William Biff McGuire) is Lily Dale’s stepfather, a tranquil, soothing presence during a time of upheaval. Visiting is Carson (Kevin Breznahan), Pete’s great nephew who was acquainted with both Bill and the mysterious young man in Atlanta.
Does Carson know the truth, or does he have a financial agenda of his own? Again, the play only hints, and here it seems more clumsy and sketchy than provocative. Carson is a device, and an awkward one at that, his arrival in town too coincidental, his character too thin.
At the very least, though, Carson does typify the play’s distrust of youth. Will is replaced at his job by the trusted young protege he himself hired, while the man who delivers the pink slip is the arrogant son of the company’s founder. In the play’s world, youth is forever stripping away the careful illusions that middle age has constructed.
The play’s depiction of homosexuality is similarly fearful. There’s more of Tennessee Williams here than Tony Kushner, but the parents’ unspoken horror does seem appropriate given the 1950 setting. Although the mercenary behavior of the unseen young man could be offensive in an age when gay men know too well the pain of loss and survival, greed and self-interest are traits of nearly every young character in the play, regardless of sexuality. Only Clara (Jacqueline Williams), the Kidders’ devoted young maid, comes away with her ethics unquestioned.
Under Robert Falls’ unhurried direction, the cast does well in walking the play’s gray areas. Torn is powerful in his depiction of a strong man undone by pain, his composure betrayed by fleeting grimaces. Knight is his equal, her stifled sobs and nervous hands showing more of grief than is comfortable to watch. Keeping pace are McGuire as the kindly stepfather (who might have a secret or two of his own), and Williams as the caring, forthright maid. Beatrice Winde all but steals two brief scenes in which she plays an elderly former servant who arrives with condolences and bittersweet reminders of a happier past.
A bit too often these disparate characters and their respective loose ends lend the play a rather meandering feel, and some of the encounters seem more padding than substance. But at its big heart “The Young Man From Atlanta” is about two people who are forced to confront their lives and find new ways of coping. When the husband and wife embrace at the play’s end, we wish them the best.