Given his significant contribution to the canon of American dramatic literature, one might expect that Horton Foote goes about his daily business with a peaceful sense of self-accomplishment. But if the staggeringly depressing themes of “Vernon Early” are at all indicative of the real-life worries of this octogenarian playwright, dark spirits are haunting the mind of a writer who’s becoming no less prolific as his years advance. With dark tones that make “The Young Man From Atlanta” look like a laugh riot, commercial prospects for this latest Harrison, Texas, character study are as bleak as this play. But Foote fans and scholars will find much of resonance in a poignant and haunting drama about the sadness, depression and regret that come with growing older.
Written on commission for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, an increasingly accomplished and diverse classical troupe that mixes Elizabethan drama with new plays that focus on life in the South, Foote’s premiering work benefits from the number of mature and skilled actors who have chosen to base their careers in Montgomery. Charles Towers’ world premiere features a beautifully understated and exceptionally truthful performance from Philip Pleasants in the title role.
Set, like many of Foote’s plays, in the fictional small town of Harrison, “Vernon Early” revisits American life in the early 1950s — a recent authorial penchant. The titular doctor is a small-town general practitioner working back when medics were dominated by house calls to mentally unbalanced townsfolk. A rich but sad man consumed by his work, Early’s spirit has been eroded by the day-to-day grind.
The depressed medic finds no comfort from his deadened relationship with his well-meaning wife (honestly played by Jill Tanner), a shrill woman unable to see her husband’s spiritual sickness and convinced that all he needs is a cruise.
As the play progresses, it’s revealed that the childless couple’s sadness comes in part from an adopted baby they were forced to relinquish when its mother changed her mind.
As in “The Young Man From Atlanta,” which featured a seemingly gay son never seen onstage, Foote seems to be probing how regrets and lack of honest communication can destroy the peace of old age — and especially how the travails of offspring (or the lack there of) can haunt the minds of parents unable to separate the past from the present. But in “Vernon Early,” almost the entire town is depressed about something.
Minor characters include a deranged old lady who is destroying her family through her self-indulgent hypochondria. And as in his previous work, Foote does not shy away from reflecting the poor racial relationships of the time.
With Foote developing his characters in his typically methodical fashion, revealing new information at a slow but consistent drip, there’s little here by way of a traditional plot. With a running time of close to two hours and nary a funny line, this sometimes painfully slow drama would benefit from an intermission. And the overall mood of the piece is so bereft of hope that one leaves the theater far more inclined to slit one’s wrists than come back for more.
But, like most of Foote’s later plays, this is a multilayered work with such rich characters that they continue to haunt the mind after the final curtain. Pleasant’s hesitant, awkward and intensely fatigued characterization certainly is a remarkable piece of acting, and Towers creates a number of striking stage pictures.