Volume 79, Number 28 | December 16 - 22 2009
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Photo by Gregory Costanzo

Hallie Foote, left, and Maggie Lacey

THE ORPHANS’ HOME CYCLE
Presented in three parts
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Michael Wilson
At Signature Theatre Company’s Peter Norton Space
555 West 42nd Street
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org

Characters, audience and author are all orphans
Insights from Hallie Foote: Horton’s daughter, favorite actress

BY JERRY TALLMER

SOLL: You’re the one whose daddy died?

HORACE ROBEDAUX, age 14: Yes Sir.

SOLL My daddy was eighty-four when he died. How old was your daddy?

HORACE: Thirty-two.

SOLL: Well, we have to go sometime. I wonder what time it is?

HORACE: I don’t know, Sir.

SOLL: I got a watch. Look and see.

Time is running out for Soll, the crazy-cranky old plantation owner in “Convicts” whose watch has in fact stopped; for young Horace, the plantation’s all-purpose hired hand at 50 cents a week; and, ça va sans dire, for all the rest of us.

It has already run out, most grievously, for Horton Foote, nine of whose 40 or 50 extraordinary plays — including “Convicts,” from which the above passage is drawn — have now been welded together under the rubric of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle.”

Note the placement of the apostrophe, after the s. That’s what takes in all the rest of us. We’re all orphans, when you get right down to it. Horton borrowed the phrase, as one might borrow a tool, from what his daughter Hallie says was one of his favorite poems, Marianne Moore’s “In Distrust of Merits” — in particular, the stoic lines: “The world’s an orphans’ home. / Shall we never have peace without sorrow?”

James Houghton’s Signature Theatre Company set up business 18 years ago, honoring one playwright each year with a full season of his or her works. Horton was one of the first. Now, Signature has brought to New York’s Off-Broadway the complete “Orphans’ Home Cycle” of three evenings (or “parts”) of three plays (or “acts”) each. Thus, “Convicts” (originally an outstanding Foote-scripted 1991 film) comprises Act II of Part One, which in turn bears the heading: “The Story of a Childhood.” Parts Two and Three become “The Story of a Marriage” and “The Story of a Family.”

The childhood, of course, and all the life that follows throughout these nine plays, is that of Horace Robedaux — a stand-in for the real Albert Horton Foote, Sr., of Wharton (in the plays, “Harrison”), Texas; father of playwright Albert Horton Foote, Jr.

Once, when Horton junior was only in his seventies, I wrote the following:

Some people get up in the morning and go to Wall Street. Or to their job in a department store. Or a supermarket. Or a newspaper office. Or to fly an airplane.

Horton Foote gets up in the morning and writes plays.

Foote was still doing that, up in Connecticut, with director Michael Wilson’s Hartford Stage Company — trimming those nine plays to fit into three three-hour evenings. He was doing so to the moment Horton died in his sleep, on March 4 of this year (ten days before what would have been his 93rd birthday).

Hallie Foote, who has seven roles in these nine plays, from starchy head-of-household to hard-drinking hoyden, was not only Horton’s daughter but his favorite actress. She says she knew her paternal grandparents — Horton senior, generally called Al, who had a haberdashery store, and his wife, grandmother Hallie Gautier Foote — very well.

The fundamental thing about Horace Robedaux/Al Foote — the shaping factor — was that his father had died when Al was 12 years old, leaving the boy to be kicked around and forgotten after his mother then married a man who, in Hallie’s understated words, “was not a sympathetic stepfather” — thus effectively giving the word “orphan” a double meaning. That stepfather is tersely, minimally, coldly, skillfully portrayed by Bryce Pinkham in Part One, Act I, of the cycle.

But Horace Robedaux — played by several actors — did finally find a bride. “My grandmother,” says Hallie, “was from a pretty wealthy family; she had three brothers who never managed anything” (as in the fine caustic out-of-cycle “Dividing the Estate”).

“Her father, my grandmother’s father, was vehemently opposed to the marriage. They eloped. I think it a very brave thing to do,” says the Hallie who is herself married to fellow actor Devon Abner.

“My grandfather died in the early 1970s; he first, then she. My father and I went down to Texas and found a lot of things that meant a lot to my father. We sent all that stuff up to where we were then living in New Hampshire” — no doubt including some grist for the mill that would one day give us an “Orphans’ Home Cycle.”

Hallie is now literally an orphan, her mother, the lovely Lillian Vallish Foote, having predeceased Horton all the way back in 1992.

As for the Cycle:

“The original nine plays he wrote pretty quickly, though not in that order. Five of then became movies: ‘1918,’ ‘Convicts,’ ‘Valentine’s Day,’ ‘Courtship,’ and ‘Llily Dale.’ So all that existed. But the idea of editing all this down to fit in one evening” — or three evenings, a la Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” — “was Michael Wilson’s.

“Hartford is where it all began,” says Hallie. “With 22 actors playing 67 characters, and the whole thing coming to 467 pages “

How much had Horton, at age 92, had to do with the project?

“He did a lot. But he’d been working on it a long time.”

A lifetime, you might say. Not just Horton’s, or his father’s.

Ours.

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