Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta, directed by Michael Wilson currently in revival at The Signature Theatre is one of Foote’s homely plays exploring loss, alienation and quiet reconciliations. Kristine Nielsen stars as demure, sheltered housewife Lily Dale Kidder in an uncharacteristic turn away from the high comedy of Taylor Mac’s Gary (it’s a blossoming). Aidan Quinn is her husband, wholesale grocer Will Kidder whose security and success is upended in the twinkling of an eye by the end of the play’s first scene. With these prototypical characterizations, whose actor portrayals are shepherded with sensitivity by Wilson, Foote treats us to a slice of suburban Americana in a representative middle upper class dynamic as a couple confronts the unspoken and faces the unspeakable with poignancy and primacy to move together into the winter of their lives.
Foote opens the play at Will Kidder’s office where we identify Will’s assurance, ambition and success in his discussions with Tom Jackson (Dan Bittner) his assistant and underling in the company. It is an incredible irony and stroke out of left field that boss Ted Cleveland Jr. (Devon Abner) has appointed Tom to replace Kidder whom he fires because he is, in effect, “over the hill” and unaware of the new trends. However, during Tom’s friendly discussion with Kidder when we learn Will has built a new, expensive house perhaps to keep his wife busy and away from thoughts about their son who drowned, Tom is sanguine about his new position and Kidder’s impending doom. To his face he acts the innocent and only until Ted Cleveland Jr. tells Kidder he is fired and that Tom replaced him does the shock wear off and we realize Tom’s surreptitious nature.
Foote, the actors and Wilson allow us to think the opening is just an expositional scene, when in fact the playwright is laying down tracks to steamroll over his protagonists by its end and throughout the play. Inherent in the first scene we note the main themes of the play and character flaws: secrecy, disconnectedness, dishonesty, underhandedness, blindness, pride, insecurity and wobbly integrity.
Quinn’s Kidder takes the news badly and provokes Cleveland Jr. to waive his three month severance because of his blustery, boastful comments about starting his own company. Quinn is superb in revealing the bombastic as well as quieter moments of the character. Indeed, Kidder’s frustration and annoyance that his life and career are taking a dive into the toilet and his life’s work has been abruptly shortened is portrayed with heartfelt, spot-on authenticity by Quinn.
The themes become magnified in the next scenes. Rather than confide in Lily Dale about his firing the moment he steps in the door, he hides the truth from her and attempts to face the trial of coming up with the money for the house and other expenses alone. Repeatedly, the couple reveal that they have lived “quiet lives of their own desperation” without confiding in each other. The excuse is that they do not want to upset each other, however, in their lies of omission, they upset themselves more and make huge mistakes which increase the pressure under which they live, pressure which results in Will’s deteriorating heart.
In the midst of this excitement are phone calls. It’s the young man from Atlanta who was the roommate of their deceased son Bill. Throughout the play, he is unnamed and remains a ghostly presence shading them with possible portents about their son’s life. Indeed, by not giving this momentous presence a name or face (he never materializes) he becomes a symbol of menace, of the lie that destroys quietly, of the deception that kills, of the unrevealed mystery that eats away at one’s soul from inside out. Unless and until Will and Lily Dale together deal with “the young man from Atlanta,” both protagonists will self-destruct. It is how they confront this spectre and what he is that propels the marvelous, tricky development of the play.
It is in the first scene that we are apprised of this “young man” in a phone call to Will’s office. Will refuses to speak to him. We sense there is an occult meaning as he calls again and then must be turned away. Foote keeps his mysterious presence looming in the background. Who is he, what does he want and why does he keep calling? Eventually, the material answers give clues to the play’s deeper meanings.
As the conflict progresses and Lily Dale and Will stop speaking to each other we discover clues that Lily Dale and Will reveal almost prying out the truth from themselves for fear that hearing it they will break down. Quinn and Nielsen work together beautifully at the gradual exposure of the light as the dawn breaks in their souls. Fortunately, the light breaks on them at different intervals and doesn’t completely overcome them, though Quinn’s performance yields that Will hangs on the edge of darkness. He may collapse and die on Lily Dale. But Foote’s intention is not more tragedy, it is deliverance in the quiet moments when still, small voices murmur in the dark hours of waiting for the dawn.
Because this couple are there for each other in their weakest moments, we understand that though their marriage has had sustained rough patches through the seasons, the most devastating one being the loss of their son and the occluded reason why he died, they do have each other. And it is to each other by the end of the play, they turn for hope and solace as they accept what they cannot change and not regret too much that they weren’t on top of themselves and their own blindness sooner.
Rounding out the characters are Lily Dale’s stepfather Pete Davenport and his grandnephew Carson. As Pete, Stephen Payne gives a fine, humorous and measured portrayal of one who appears to be kindly and steady if not too discerning. Davenport stays with Lily and Will. In a particularly well suited scene that drew great chuckles from an audience who understood and had been there, the couple hits up Pete for money separately then together in an attempt to raise the funds to start Will in his own business. Davenport is cheerful and openhanded, but eventually, the fund raising plot explodes when Will goes to the banks and is refused loans. Left and right doors shut in his face and the money that Lily Dale had in her savings has been mysteriously depleted, though Will appears to have given her everything she needs for the new house.
The mystery of this continues until the truth spurts out from guilty consciences and we discover almost everything that has been hidden. As in life, though, there are some secrets only those who kept them know the answers to. However, it is Carson who unwraps the package of assumptions, lies of omission, hidden secrets and deceptions with his cheerful, unassuming presence which ironically also carries with it a hidden and secret component.
Carson (Jon Orsini) appears innocent and charming. But the intrigue and conflict increases when Carson reveals he knew Bill’s roommate, the young man from Atlanta who keeps calling the house and upsetting Will and Lily Dale. Carson identifies negative elements about the lying character of Bill’s roommate. Afterward, continued revelations come fast and furious from Will who discovered he was taking money from Bill. He finally reveals this to Lily Dale to chide her to stay away from the young man. The deceptions, the manipulated lures of Bill’s roommate who Lily Dale sees as a lifeline to her dead son continue, until finally the couple confront what in 1950 Houston, Texas was unmentionable, if unthinkable.
As one who helps Lily Dale eventually get to that confrontation, there is the former housekeeper who took care of Lily Dale when she was younger. The dignified, lovely, elderly, black Etta Doris (Pat Bowie) is ushered into the new home by their efficient housekeeper Clara (Harriet D. Foy). Etta Doris is a symbolic character, and she comes with an ironic reckoning. In her elderly, lame condition she feels an imperative to see Lily Dale. She walks a great length to their new home after the bus can only take her so far. Etta Doris comments on the loveliness of the home, and then expresses her condolences on the loss of Bill whom she remembered when he was a child. It is this connection from the past that has an impact on Lily Dale and it is Etta Doris’ unction of her faith and good will that brings to bear a greater truth on Lily Dale, though it is not immediately apparent.
In including Clara and Etta Doris as a reference to another class that was an integral part of the well being of Houston’s elite, Etta Doris is a loving and authentic individual who does not restrain herself from showing her care and concern for Lily Dale. That it is she that offers Lily Dale a remembered affection from the past is one of the vital breakthroughs in the play. With her quiet, vital being, Etta Doris brings that which strengthens Lily Dale to face the truths that Will confronts her with by the play’s end. In that confrontation, Lily Dale and Will must cling to each other and resolve to live with the hurt and pain of their own imperfections. And they must hope that their shared truth will continue to reconcile them to each other and make them stronger, more loving, connected individuals.
The Young Man From Atlanta thanks to its strong ensemble work and fine direction by Michael Wilson resonates as a play of great humanity and truth that is deserving of its Pulitzer. With Jeff Cowie’s scenic design, Van Broughton Ramsey’s costume design, David Lander’s lighting design and John Gromada’s sound design and original music, Wilson’s vision is realized.
The production will be at the Pershing Square Signature Center until 15 December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Gary by Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama, Taylor Mac and directed by the prodigiously talented George C. Wolfe is WACK! (translation: cosmically brilliant, riotous, sardonic in dark and light) This uproarious “Sequel to Titus Andronicus” (Shakespeare’s first and bloodiest tragedy) is a brutal, intense, intimate play about body parts and indelicate body processes we don’t discuss in polite conversation with The Queen. Rich in themes and characterizations with a clever, twisty plot that surprises, it is also about much more.
To give us a handle in how to approach the mood and tenor of Gary, Carol (the sensational Julie White) comes in front of the once glorious, now shabby curtain and addresses the audience in Shakespeare’s favorite verse, rhyming iambic couplets. As Carol validates the how/why that Titus Androicus deserves a sequel, suddenly she spurts blood from a hole where her throat has been slit during the roiling events of the former play.
The absurdity of her discussion about a sequel that is more craven with gore than the original (while spurting blood) is titanically ironic and bounteously funny! Already, the playwright has set the mood and tenor between the horrific and rambunctious, as Carol’s unsuccessful attempts to stem the red flux poises the audience on a balance beam of tragedy and comedy. If this is the first of the production’s many moments of shock and awesomeness, we’re in for the long and the short of it. Let the rollicking fun begin!
Conceivably, after every holocaust of war and massacre, someone has to clean up and set things “straight” again. In her wobbly, blood draining state, Carol brings up the curtain to reveal the debacle of bloodshed at the conclusion of Titus Andronicus. Then she totters off to bleed to death. The mounds and mounds of bodies piled up from the coup are staggering. There is one central mound of bodies to be processed, another pile of processed bodies and another under a sheet. Thanks to Santo Loquasto’s scenic design, everywhere you look there is the attempt to organize rotting flesh in the Roman banquet hall that is a temporary storage place of the dead. These number among them rich and poor, wealthy elites, citizens, officials, soldiers, rulers and others swept up in fierce fighting, civil war, apocalypse. Death does not discriminate.
The feast of death poetically will slide into a feast of celebration, for in a day, the hall will be the site of the new Emperor’s inauguration, another power transition. Into this macabre scene comes Gary (the incredible Nathan Lane who is a riot beyond description) a former clown who juggled live pigeons to little acclaim and no success. Things are looking up for Gary; he has a new job as a servant for the court. But what a job!
Having escaped a near death experience at the executioner’s hand by a lightening stroke of genius, Gary ends up in the hall for he told the executioner he would help tidy up the catastrophe of gore by doing maid service. Little does he realize what cleaning up corpses entails, and when head maid Janice (the magnificent, moment-to-moment Kristine Nielsen) begins to show him, he recoils, reconsiders his choice and redirects his “ingenuity” in a different direction. He will not stay there long; he will rise up and go beyond maid service. He will become a Fool, the wisest of the Emperor’s counsel.
Meanwhile, Janice must teach loafer Gary the tricks of death’s work in the flesh. Grand experience has inured her to dealing with corpses, for she’s been cleaning up after each of the Roman wars for a long time. And Rome has been battling for decades. As Janice instructs Gary in “cleaning,” her fiendish efficiency at pummeling the gas out of the bodies to extract their farts is Nielsen at her hysterical best. Her antic machinations are real and horrifyingly, and equally LOL humorous, as she drains noxious body fluids showing Gary the difference between siphoning out the blood, and pushing out the poo. Lane’s Gary is priceless in his response to Nielsen’s Janice. The two actors are the perfect counterparts to make us roll in the aisles at their irreverence and seriousness.
From the outset, we understand Mac’s themes of class elitism and domination as the two maids disagree, fight and create their own rank to dominate, even as ridiculous as it is to fight over lead maid and subordinate. From the characters’ quips, jibes, demands, insults and resistances, we learn how beaten down the lower classes are through these prototypical plebeians who are the invisible, the disposable. But then again their disagreement if given latitude may rise to add their corpses to the pile and who then would be left to clean up the mess? The human condition to power over others defies class. There must be something better than this!
Though recovery from his near death experience sent him to a place of hell and damnation with Janice presiding as head monster maid, Gary holds to his enlightened state. He considers; maybe he can save the world and make it better, to stem the tide of wars and bloodshed. His revelation spurs him to attempt to convert Janice to his cause and show her there is something better in life than pumping poo and expelling gas from cadavers.
But Nielsen’s Janice is an incontrovertible martinet. What’s worse is she’s excellent at her job. She actually takes pride in her efficiency and refuses to revolt against the current social “order” or rise above it. She eschews and belittles Gary’s ambitions. She is insistent about keeping her place at the bottom of the social strata so she can stay alive even if she is a fart expeller. But as Gary questions the “life” she is leading, his presence and argumentative logic wear her down. As she processes the bodies and argues and commands Gary, she erupts with aphorisms and sage comments indicating that perhaps there is a shaking going on in her soul. Perhaps dealing with death has made her wise after all and prone to hope as well.
Carol shocks Gary and Janice joining the scene, having survived bleeding to death in a second near death experience to match Gary’s. She adds to the hilarity by confessing her “sin” that she missed an opportunity to save a life. With distraught fervor, White’s Carol cries out a refrain of her “sin” at pointed moments during the conversation with Janice and Gary. Each time she erupts in a whining cry (no SPOILER ALERT, SEE THE PLAY) she is marvelously, brilliantly funny. And yet, we feel for her and “know” we would not have behaved so cruelly and cowardly as she did. (NOT!) But she, too, can be inspired to change.
White, Lane and Nielsen send up his extraordinary satire on death and the tragedy of the human condition to fear, hate, revenge and murder. And finally, they do what Gary persuades them to, with Janice convinced of the rightness of his enlightened suggestions. The characters create an “artistic coup” and turn the tragedy of humanity (in Titus Andronicus) into an absurd comedy sequel, where the audience laughs at itself and reverses the cycle of hatred, killing and violence.
Indeed, Mac and Gary parallel in their intentions, as Gary states in creating his artistic coup, that it’s an “onslaught of ingenuity that’s a transformation of the calamity we got here. A sort of theatrical revenge on the Andronicus revenge.” Thus, this ‘Sequel to Titus Andronicus’ is a comedy bubbling up from a tragedy and the production ends with hope sparked from a clown and mid-wife who had a second chance at life to encourage a maid who was enduring a living death.
Though the pallid, fake, pokey corpses are stripped or dressed as Romans and the setting is in the latter days of the Roman Empire, Mac’s message is clear. This is us! This is now! The more ridiculous-looking and absurd the “cadavers” appear, the more death and war hover in the “unreality” of the piles of staged dummy corpses. In displaying the morbidity of violent effects, the production is precisely pacifist. But it is also a “Fooling.” So…interpret as you will.
Mac, with acute, dark wit creates his new Mac-genre-“Fooling” and reminds us how we “play” with our own mortality and that of others by taking our lives for granted. As invisible as one may feel in light of the culture’s social and political corruptions, there is always hope. There is always something one may do to rise above and use one’s genius to help others. The fact that Gary plans an “artistic revolt” to convert tragedy into comedy suits for our time.
The production rises to the heavens buoyed up by the fabulous talents of acting giants Nielsen, Lane and White shepherded by the superb Wolf. I could write volumes about this work and the humane, sensitive and completely organic performances by Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen and Julie White that are “over-the-top” impeccable. I cannot imagine anyone else in their hyper-hilarious, exhaustive, and energetic portrayals.
Wolf and the artistic team display the playwright’s vision and sound the alarm with energetic gusto. Can we luxuriate in continued economic class struggles, power dominations which set up the inequities between the rulers and the ruled? Why must the “inconsequential” and “invisible” under classes continuously put up with what their “betters” have wrought to satisfy their own lusts, while destroying most everyone else and above all themselves in the process? It is a wasted institutional genocide that no one escapes. Are we not better than this? The characters try to prove they are. Bravo to the actors for bringing them to loving life.
This production is profound. Its humor is beyond hysterical, of the type that makes you laugh through your tears, and cry laughing. Its loving stroke will blind you and make you see again. In its irreverence, cataclysmic indifference about the dead, and twitting of the frailties of humanity’s proclivity to murder, exact revenge and make war, it is an indictment of the “upper” classes (the audience is mentioned as part of the court) and vindication of the lower classes who put up with them. In short it is irreverently ingenious. Every arrogant, billionaire narcissist should see this “Fooling.”
Kudos to Santo Loquasto (Scenic Design) Ann Roth (Costume Design) Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Lighting Design) Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Design).
Theater Review (NYC): ‘A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur,’ by Tennessee Williams, Starring Kristine Nielsen, Annette O’Toole, Jean Lichty
Tennessee Williams dramatized women’s quiet lives of desperation. Indeed, his characterizations ping from the haunting, tragic-comedic melodies of emotion he experienced with his family growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. In A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur, directed with measured grace by Austin Pendleton, one of Williams’ last plays receives a sterling, masterful presentation. Assuredly, the excellent ensemble of actors provides the poignant atmospheric intensity.
Currently running at Theatre at St. Clement’s, the production deserves a visit for its adroit performances and direction. Pendleton’s nuanced and gradual unfolding of Williams’ dramatic climax at once captivates with its beauty, delicacy, and plaintiveness. Delivered with a less astute balance in shepherding the actors’ portrayals than Pendleton’s, Williams’ complicated play would not deliver the power and heart-break that this production evokes at the conclusion.
Throughout the play we witness three single women’s wants and desires. A fourth, who becomes a foil for the other three, provides the background theme which motivates them to desperation. Each longs for happiness away from her current day to day lower class existence in depression era St. Louis, Missouri. In order to achieve this happiness, they place their hopes in others to deliver it. Ultimately, the women deceive themselves. Clearly, they set themselves up for disappointment after disappointment.
At the opening we note that maternal, nurturing Bodey (Kristine Nielsen in a superb, layered, and profound rendering), chides Dorothea. With precision Jean Lichty portrays the teacher, a fading Southern belle from Tennessee. Lichty’s somewhat frivolous Dorothea spends her entire morning waiting upon Mr. Ralph Ellis’s phone call. Because Bodey is “deaf” and didn’t hear the phone ring when it did, we become persuaded by Dorothea’s view. Initially we believe her relationship with Ralph remains solidly founded. Meanwhile, Bodey prepares food for a lovely outing at Creve Coeur with her twin brother Buddy, anticipating that Dorothea will join them. She insists she will not, for Ralph Ellis has important information to tell her about their lives together.
Strikingly, we see that neither women really listens to the other as each drives forward to achieve their own goals. Dorothea yearns for Ralph, a principal who associates with the country club set. Because of her recent tryst with him, she anticipates that her charms have overwhelmed him romantically as she has been overwhelmed. The inevitability remains clear for her, though Bodey warns her against these notions.
Bodey’s reaction to Dotty’s relationship with Ellis appears questionable. We wonder at Bodey’s potential jealousy of “their love.” The feminine, sweet, pretty Dorothea surely will leave her and get married, a frightening prospect for Bodey. Indeed, Dotty believes that eventually, Ralph will spirit her into a well positioned marriage away from the squalid, spare lifestyle she leads teaching, and renting from Bodey. For her part Bodey, a spinster devoted to caring for others, least of all herself, has given up on her own prospects of marriage. Instead, she believes that her overweight, reliable, unromantic, hearty twin Buddy would be perfect for Dorothea. And if they married, she would be the dependable aunt who would raise their brood and have a vital purpose in their family life.
During the course of the play, two other spinsters join into this group of women who appear unloved and unwanted. Miss Gluck, a German neighbor who has lost her mother and who grieves incessantly. Most probably not only does she grieve the close relationship loss. But she probably grieves that she will be alone. Thus, she must give herself her own solace daily. Indeed, how much can Miss Gluck rely on the friendship of her neighbor Bodey with whom she communicates only in German? Polly McKie as the mournful Miss Gluck is humorous and believable. Thematically, the character portends what happens to women who do not marry well economically or congenially, or whose husbands abandon them to loneliness and despair.
Helena is the fourth spinster who intrudes into the lives of Bodey and Dotty. During the course of her visit, she suggests the monstrous end which awaits the unfortunate Miss Gluck. Incisively portrayed by Annette O’Toole, Helena represents the cruel and bitter archetype of the most miserable of the spinsters. These yearn to escape themselves and falling short, grow venomous and predatory toward other women. Arrogant, acerbic, biting she manipulates with sarcasm. And she bullies and demeans Bodey and Dotty with female cultural mores and the pretense of good breeding. In irony she implies that unless Dotty takes actions to lift herself into an upscale arrangement with her, she will fall into the same despair as Bodey. And with finality, poor Dotty will eventually become a social anathema, the greying, unwanted, depressive Miss Gluck.
As the day unfolds, we learn Helena, too, has wants. A fellow teacher in the same school, she intends for Dotty to be her roommate and share the expensive rent and utilities. Her concern for Dotty’s life path concludes with self-dealing. Her own. She covets the monthly expenses Dotty will hand to her. And she intends Dotty to partner up at their bridge games twice a week for companionship. When Dotty inquires whether the bridge will be mixed, we see the fullness of Dotty’s fear anguish of discouragement.
For Dotty, there is no hope without a man. She cannot define herself in any other terms. Nor can she settle for a kind of contentment or resignation as Bodey, Helena and even Miss Gluck have. For her it’s a man, or it’s the abyss. That her designs fall upon Ralph Ellis and certainly not the overweight, unappealing Buddy, who accompanies his sister to Creve Coeur, is her tragic misfortune.
Tennessee Williams’ ironies and humor seek a fine level in this satisfying and heartfelt production. Notably, the Rolling Stones anthem to humanity rings out loudly in this play’s themes of disappointment and finding one’s courage to move past despair. No, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want!” However, for some of the characters, especially the ones who nurture and look out for each other, they do “get what they need.” Perhaps. Indeed, they may even enjoy a lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur.
Kudos to the artistic team Harry Feiner (Scenic & Lighting Design), Beth Goldenberg (Costumes), Ryan Rumery (Sound Design & Original Music), and the other artists.
A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur presented by La Femme Theatre Productions runs without an intermission at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th St) until 21 October. Interestingly, the theater was founded by Tennessee William’s cousin Reverend Sidney Lanier. You may purchase tickets at LaFemmeTheatreProductions.org.