Ten minutes of immaculately deft exposition is how master American playwright Horton Foote (1916-2009) begins his wrenching 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning family secrets drama, The Young Man from Atlanta, that is here given a tender revival.
It’s 1950 and we’re in the Houston, Texas, office of the 61-year-old grocery distribution executive Will Kidder who came from humble beginnings and rose through the ranks over 37 years. While conversing with a younger colleague whom he hired and trained, we rapidly learn of his moving in to his newly built ostentatious $200,000 house, about his emotionally fragile 58-year-old wife Lily Dale and the drowning death of their only child, the 37-year-old Bill. Shortly after, the faltering company’s owner, the son of its late founder, visits Will to inform him that he’s fired.
Yes, Mr. Foote’s eloquent take on the souring of the American Dream has shades of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but with his idiosyncratic and powerful command of dramatic writing he creates a distinctive narrative. Looming over and central to the play is the implied and intimated notion that Will and Lily Dale’s unmarried son was gay and committed suicide. He had moved to Atlanta, taken a marginal job and lived in a rooming house, sharing space with a male “friend” who was ten years younger. This companion is an unseen though pivotal figure who perpetually contacts the grieving parents with shattering results.
Foote strategically weaves in several subsidiary characters and with his renowned beautifully precise dialogue that’s spoken during two taut acts, gives us a majestic, specific and timeless view of the human condition. Though seemingly basic, director Michael Wilson’s staging utilizes the accomplished technical elements to optimum effect, placing the actors in a number of subtle yet arresting tableaus and achieves uniformly compelling performances from them.
For the first time in my life I don’t know where to turn or what to do. Here I am in the finest city in the greatest country in the world and I don’t know where to turn. I’m whipped. I’m whipped.
Aidan Quinn has evolved from the handsome young star of such notable 1980’s films as Desperately Seeking Susan, An Early Frost and Benny and Joon into a mature and forceful stage actor as evidenced by his commanding centerpiece performance as Will. Now silver-haired and with his boyish features weathered, Mr. Quinn still retains the wide-eyed pugnacious persona of his past. Quinn’s voice remains smooth and expressive and that is displayed as he conveys the unraveling Will’s despair, resignation and fighting spirit.
Known to New York City theatergoers for her quirky comedic flair that has enriched many productions, Kristine Nielsen melds that singular quality with the dramatic circumstances of the play to create her vivid characterization of Lily Dale. Ms. Nielsen’s dithery mannerisms, double takes and advanced comic timing get all the laughs possible, many of them unexpected, while still being truthful to the seriousness of the material. Nielsen is delightful and simultaneously harrowing.
Lean, aged and contemplative, Stephen Payne with his croaky cadences is quietly thrilling as Pete Davenport, a retired railroad engineer and Lily Dale’s benevolent widowed stepfather. Frequently called upon due to strained circumstances to act as the go-between of his daughter and her husband, Mr. Payne’s reactions are hilariously priceless, and he brings pathos to the more reflective passages.
As Pete’s visiting sunny great-nephew, the charming Jon Orsini is a marvel of boyish animation. The winning Harriett D. Foy wonderfully sails through the actions as the couple’s wise maid. Intense Devon Abner is sympathetically pragmatic as Will’s good ole boy boss. Dan Bittner’s cheeriness informs his turn as Will’s reluctantly treacherous co-worker. Wickedly playing up her role’s physical infirmities, Pat Bowie offers an enchanting turn as a long-ago former maid around for a wistful reunion.
A nostalgic billboard heralding “Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery” hangs atop scenic designer Jeff Cowie’s contained vintage office setting at the play’s start and it’s a grand visual embellishment. Later, Mr. Cowie magically transports us to the Kidder house in all its New Money glory. Cowie’s inspired efforts are integral to the production’s success.
David Lander’s often shadowy lighting design conveys the time and place with atmospheric vigor. Composer John Gromada’s original music combines jauntiness and moodiness and his sound design deftly renders the spare effects. From Will’s boxy suits, choice dressing gowns and Lily Dale’s matronly stylish ensembles, costume designer Van Broughton Ramsey’s varied creations evoke post W.W. II affluent Americana, as well as down home looks of the era for the other characters.
Horton Foote and The Young Man from Atlanta’s stature is affirmed by this luminous incarnation.
The Young Man from Atlanta (through December 15, 2019)
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center,
480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission