It’s been a long time coming for Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta” to make its way to the Atlanta stage, and the elusive nature of the title character may be just one of the reasons why.
But here it finally comes, a full 16 years and four Tony Award nominations after its inception, and Theatrical Outfit’s tender production makes it well worth the wait. After Artistic Director Tom Key launched Foote’s lesser-known work “The Chase” in 2007, it was only a matter of time before their newfound friendship would lead to an Atlanta staging of the domestic drama. That Foote died in the fall of 2009, at age 92, and isn’t here to witness it is one of the few regrets surrounding the production.
The play will have its official opening night Saturday after three preview performances, the second of which I caught on Thursday, prepared to marvel at the subtleties and overarching sense of dignity that Foote’s words carry. That, and to finally get a chance to see Tom Key in action. Even a preview performance, thanks to the capable direction of Jessica Phelps West, showcased all of these strengths.
First, some backstory: “The Young Man From Atlanta” was first staged in 1995 as a belated coda to Foote’s nine-play “The Orphans’ Home” cycle. It has been considered by many to be the capstone of a mammoth career in theater (“The Chase,” “The Trip to Bountiful”) and on film with adaptations (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) and original works (“Tender Mercies”).
Foote displayed a lifelong fascination with how the past hangs over our concepts of home and success, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this work. The play is set in Houston in 1950, where hard-working, 64-year-old Will Kidder (Key) believes that he has just about realized the American Dream. He’s bought a huge house and is set to match it with a new car for his wife, Lily Dale (Marianne Hammock). (Photos of Key and Hammock by Charles Taylor.)
An eternal optimist, Will is the kind who could find the horse in a pile of manure. Talking to his younger co-worker Tom (Andrew Benator), he frames everything as “the best!” — Houston is the best city, Lily Dale is the best wife, he’s about to own the best house, and so on. It’s as if saying it made it so.
When Will is fired by his boss (Robin Bloodworth) — the son of his former boss — the cracks appear in Will’s dream. They were there all along, for Will and Lily Dale still mourn the recent passing of their only son, Bill, whose drowning remains a mystery but feels too much like a suicide. In struggling to regain his footing, Will is confronted with his past, wondering whether his obsession with career crippled him as a husband and father.
The young man from Atlanta is Randy, who is Bill’s former roommate and apparent close friend. Randy forever looms on the periphery of the Kidder household and the play itself. He has soaked Lily Dale for thousands of dollars with one sob story or another, and now he’s back for more. This time he promises to tell the truth about what really happened to Bill. Will, though racked with guilt, will have none of it, dismissing Randy as a con artist.
Lily Dale, who has grown more religious to ease the pain of her loss, wants to believe that Randy is for real and holds some answers. Her yearning to reconnect with her son through the dubious Randy tests Will’s patience and his ever-weakening heart.
As dour as the plot’s circumstances are, Foote infuses the story with little comedic touches that keep the audience chuckling at the strangest times, as with Lily Dale’s preoccupation with the so-called “Disappointment Club” that drove Houston’s black maids to civil disobedience, or (more to the home audience’s delight) the ongoing rivalry between Houston and Atlanta for the title of the South’s largest city.
Foote has been called America’s Chekhov, for tapping deeply into the souls of his characters, and Will Kidder has been likened to a latter-day Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”; the comparisons ring true here but with less histrionics. Key offers a wonderfully nuanced Will, tapping into both of these ideas even as he spent some of the play’s early moments finding Will’s voice. He wants us to at least try to understand Will, maybe sympathize with him, but never pity him.
Hammock’s fretting Lily Dale feels caught between supporting her faltering husband and her memories of her lost son. The supporting characters offer soft but important touches, from the growing relationship between Lily Dale’s stepfather Pete (Frank Roberts) and a distant relative (Tim Batten) to the family’s current and former cooks, Clara (Tonia Jackson) and Etta (Donna Briscoe), who seem to remember more about the Kidders than the Kidders do.
It’s all played out on Dale Brubaker’s set, a study in masculine Texas browns of oak and leather, where all the furniture gets plenty of use except for the baby grand piano that signifies Lily Dale’s lost passion for music.
The magical moment of the play comes toward the end in a rushing wave, as some inner truths are exposed just as others remain concealed. There is plenty yet to be known, leaving the Kidders and the rest of us wondering what will happen next. By the end, we’re concerned not so much about the young man from Atlanta as the old couple from Houston, and how they’ll prevent their dream from becoming a nightmare.