Horton Foote wrote the screenplays for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Trip to Bountiful,” and “Tender Mercies,” and at age 79 received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play “The Young Man from Atlanta,” now being performed by Theatrical Outfit through Feb. 20.
The play is set in Houston in the 1950’s. Will Kidder (Tom Key) is a businessman who reminds me of some baby boomers I know: He feels young, but isn’t (at least not chronologically). And he’s being let go from the wholesale grocery firm for which he’s worked for 40 years for no other apparent reason than his age.
The timing isn’t good (is it ever?). He and his wife Lily Dale (Marianne Hammock) have just purchased a tony Houston home that has touches of Frank Lloyd Wright in it (thanks to set designer Dale Brubaker). But in this well-made play there is even more serious trouble: Their 37-year-old son and only child, Bill, has recently drowned. Since he couldn’t swim, the death was probably a suicide.
The only person who can possibly shed light on the situation is Bill’s former roommate in Atlanta. But he never appears onstage. It seems Lily Dale has been talking with him and also giving him money to help out in what may be bogus crises. But Will will not see him, and whatever the connection “the young man from Atlanta” had with his son, “I don’t want to know what it is. Ever.”
Ah, the wonderful, uncomplicated 50’s in America. If you have a serious problem, just don’t talk about it, and it will go away—probably doesn’t even exist. Turn on “Donna Reed” or “Beaver” (those were TV shows if you’re a child) and you’ll see life as it really is. Right?
Of course, the implication is that the late Bill and his friend had a gay relationship—unmentionable in that environment. It’s interesting that in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ 1958 play “Suddenly Last Summer,” Sebastian, the gay son, was never seen: You saw the back of him, but never his face—you would have turned into a pillar of salt. In “The Young Man from Atlanta,” the title character is never seen and the son is dead. Foote may have been writing in the 90’s, but he surely got the 50’s consciousness right.
Director Jessica Phelps West has cast the play very well. Ms. Hammock’s Lily Dale is like a butterfly in Stonehenge—the music has gone out of her life. Mr. Key captures the sad, steely resolve of American men of that era—he’ll work this thing out if it kills him; and it probably will. There is a strong supporting cast: Donna Biscoe, Andrew Benator, Tonia Jackson, Frank Roberts, Tim Batten, Robin Bloodworth, and Amanda Relaford. Kendall Simpson composed some affecting, lovely music.
Although the play has the Pulitzer imprimatur, I don’t find it extraordinarily compelling. But the sly Mr. Foote (he died at 93 in 2009) has a sharp ear for “something unspoken” (a Tennessee Williams one act), and these performers do him proud.