When Horton Foote’s latest work premiered at Houston’s Alley Theater in June, it proved a literal washout: Tropical storm Allison swept through town, leaving the Alley partially submerged. To judge from that production, which is stopping in Minneapolis en route to Hartford, Conn., Allison may have been trying to make a point. Foote’s memory play, though not void of possibility, remains too flimsily built to float.
Structured as a series of monologues delivered to no one in particular, the work (calling it a play would seem to presume some minimal onstage activity) concerns three aged sisters living in the familiar Foote territory of a small Texas town. They are the daughters of the titular carpetbagger, and, as such, have inherited a large, ill-gotten plantation. They each suffer the sins of their imperious father: One is a disinherited prodigal, another a dazed naif, the third a lovelorn spinster.
For reasons never made entirely clear, the sisters are compelled to divulge their entire family history, replete with endless prattling about clothes and food and money. As characters, they may actually ring too true: Listening to this deluge is like being cornered by your least favorite aunt in triplicate.
This production’s director, Michael Wilson — who recently moved from the Alley to become artistic director of the Hartford Stage Co. — follows the playwright’s undramatic bent, leaving the stage empty but for the actors and some furniture. Like Foote’s writing, the staging strips away all artifice.
The problem, though, is that there’s nothing underneath to hold the play up — it’s a blob of character without a dramatic skeleton.
“The Carpetbagger’s Children” is modeled after Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” and the theme is superficially similar (the frustrations and impacted desires of provincial life). But Chekhov made his arguments about vanity and survival manifest onstage. It may not matter if his three sisters make it to Moscow or the Ranevskys manage to keep their cherry orchard; their struggle endures. Foote, in contrast, gives no sense that anything is at stake; we’re never sure what these women want, and so never sure of what they’ve lost.
Absent any narrative thrust, it’s up to the high-profile cast to give “The Carpetbagger’s Children” a shove. Jean Stapleton has a winning earthiness, but her role, as the prodigal daughter, offers only intermittent opportunity to display her comic gifts. Roberta Maxwell as the faithful Cornelia fares worse, stumbling over lines she’s been delivering for two months. If this is an affectation, it’s particularly ill-suited to the play’s naturalism; people generally don’t forget what they’re saying when they’re chatting about themselves.
Only Hallie Foote, as Sissie, the “baby” of the brood, seems to be at home inside her character (the playwright’s daughter, she’s also the best of the trio in managing the Texas accent). Yet the play’s aimlessness also seems to sabotage her performance: Just when Sissie is getting interesting, she’s abruptly killed. It’s indicative of the whole exercise: “The Carpetbagger’s Children” may sound like life, but, as drama, it’s dead in the water.