The most formidable presence in Daisy Foote’s new play, “Him,” is never seen or heard, except through the stunted characters of his children. Even on his deathbed, this silent tyrant controls both the lives of his three grown children (in extraordinary performances from Hallie Foote, Tim Hopper, and Adam LeFevre) and the fate of their rural New Hampshire town. Like her father, the late Horton Foote, the scribe sees herself as a chronicler of small-town America, and this new chapter in the history of Tremont, N.H., captures a decisive moment when greed drove people to sell out their home towns.
As the embittered Pauline, Hallie Foote provides the same service for her sister that she did for her father — portraying sour women who feel cheated (and often are) by circumstances beyond their control and who take out their fury and frustrations on weaker family members. What makes these unlovely women so interesting, and Foote’s nuanced portrayals of them so astonishing, is that from time to time they drop their hard-shelled defensives and reveal, if only for a moment, the deep fears and hopeless yearnings that motivate their monstrous behavior.
In “Him,” one of those rare moments occurs when Pauline’s normally compliant brother, Henry (Hopper), refuses to sell the valuable acres of unspoiled land their father entrusted to them. “I can’t go back to how things were,” she says, seeing her dreams of wealth and happiness go up in smoke. “All that darkness. I’m afraid of it. I’m so afraid.”
Earlier scenes show us exactly “how things were” after the big Shoprite and the two Wal-Marts moved in and drove the family grocery store to the verge of bankruptcy. The drab wardrobe supplied by Teresa Snider-Stein and the depressing set of a rundown country kitchen (designed by Marion Williams and cast in gloom by Tyler Micoleau’s lighting) are stark visual indicators of the dire state this family is in. The TV is broken, the car won’t go, and the cupboards are as bare as the shelves of the family store.
“The store is dead and we’re just standing over a corpse,” says Pauline, who is still seething because her father wouldn’t let her modernize it by selling wine and lottery tickets — or sell the store when they still could.
Helmer Evan Yionoulis — who also directed “Bhutan,” an earlier play in Foote’s regional play cycle — is totally in sync with the scribe’s aim of exploring the complexity of a difficult character. So there’s a true bond of love between this bitter woman and her gentle brother Henry, who frequents “boy bars” and yearns for a married man who is the only person in town who is kind to him. The beauty of Hopper’s sensitive perf is that it both reveals and protects the emotional vulnerability of this unhappy man.
LeFevre’s challenge is to pinpoint both the physical strength and the emotional naivete of Farley, who is a 50-year-old man with the IQ of an 11 year-old-child. As played with disarming sweetness by the physically hulking LeFevre, there’s something innocent — and at the same time, very scary — about this unpredictable brother.
The death of the patriarch brings two stunning surprises. For Pauline, it’s the news that their father has left them a huge swathe of open land that no one knew he even owned. For Henry, it’s the discovery of the old man’s journals, years and years of leather-bound thoughts that he never shared with his wife or children when he was alive.
As she does in understated ways with Pauline, Foote tries to show us both sides of the father, the first being the cold and emotionally distant parent who withheld any displays of affection toward his children — if, indeed, he felt any. “I never wanted them,” he says in one journal entry.
Chilling as they are to hear (coming from the mouths of either Hallie Foote or Hopper), these cruel admissions are striking for their blunt honesty. More problematical are those journal passages that disclose his rapturous embrace of the peace he finds in nature and his revulsion for the human “locusts” swarming over the landscape. Instead of revealing a sensitive soul attuned to the pristine land he secretly purchased, these overwritten nature-loving passages show us a selfish man supremely indifferent to the feelings of any other human being but himself: someone who embraced nature’s heartless cruelty along with its benign beauty.