Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
The Young Man From Atlanta
By Elyse Sommer
An overheard comment from a woman of a certain age to her thirty-something companion sums it up: "This is what plays used to be like. Great acting. People you care about. Wonderful!" The Young Man From Atlanta is indeed a fine, old-fashioned sort of play--not old-fashioned in the sense of being out of fashion, but old-fashioned in being emotionally satisfying, exquisitely acted and flawlessly staged.
Horton Foote's Pulitzer prize-winning play is about a middle-aged couple whose rags-to-riches American Dream suddenly turns into a nightmare. While set in 1950, the Kidders' painful but often funny story resonates with enough universal questions to keep this theater experience alive long after Rip Torn and Shirley Knight and their uniformly excellent supporting cast have taken their well-deserved bows. I hope students--especially those whose theater-going has been limited to an occasional splurge on a hit musical--will take advantage of the Longacre's special low-priced $7.50 student rush tickets.
When we meet Will Kidder (Rip Torn) he's still ensconced in the office of the wholesale grocery firm for which he's worked for forty years. He's the blustery, hail-fellow-well-met salesman personified. His religion is the religion of go-getter-ism which means working for the biggest and best company, having the biggest and best house, the biggest and best car. It is a religion that deals with painful events by keeping busy--that's why when Will's son died six months earlier, he bought a big new house to take his wife's mind off her grief.
A conversation with his young assistant Tom Jackson, (Marcus Giamatti), quickly makes us aware of the big-brimmed hat hanging on the wall. Could it be more than a touch of Texas, but a symbol that Will's style of doing business (and for that matter, living his life), has become "all hat and no cattle"--a favorite expression of former Texas Governor John Connally?
Sure enough, when Ted Cleveland, Jr. (Stephen Trovillion), enters the office all 3-piece pin-striped suit efficiency, Tom's gentle hints about flagging sales are confirmed in the worst way possible. Will is fired. The word "downsizing" hasn't been invented yet but you can foresee its epidemic growth in that scene. You may wish to save your sympathy for someone not quite so close to "normal" retirement and without a big, mortgage-free house but as you see Rip Torn's face turn into a map of pain, there's no shutting off the rush of your response to this man's despair.
And you'll find yourself equally drawn into the pain and puzzlement of naive and silly Lily Dale brilliantly portrayed by Shirley Knight. Sure she's been too easily duped, emotionally and financially, by the never seen young man from Atlanta who claims to have been her son's best friend-- but who can argue with her "I needed comfortin'?" Who can say to Will or Lily Dale "Why didn't you listen to your son before he left home?" After all, the son is dead, most probably a suicide, and therefore weighing down their grief with the burden of parents who have failed their child. Besides, they know - but they come from an era where there was too much denial of disturbing questions, as the pendulum may have swung too much the other way today.
And so we watch them muddle through days that find even the always resilient Will, the man who made it through the great Depression "with flying colors" not knowing which way to turn. His immediate reaction to his firing is to start his own company. After all, didn't he have an I.R.A of sorts in the $5000 check he gave Lily Dale every Christmas for fifteen years, well knowing she'd never spend it.
A lot happens in the time we spend with the Kidders and none of it very surprising. The cartons in the house they just moved into remain unpacked, much like the insights they've left under wraps. When some of these truths are unpacked a too close look would make survival impossibly painful. And so, while Will and Lily Dale don't suddenly sprout wings of wisdom, the playwright and the players make us understand them and wish them well.
Essentially, while Young Man raises issues reminiscent of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and Six Degrees of Separation, it is not so much an issue play as a wonderfully realized slice of life. Every character we meet is a three dimensional human being. Marcus Giamatti, seen earlier this season in The Blues Are Running, perfectly blends ambition, awe and sympathy as Will's successor. When Will is sick, he brings flowers while the head of the company sends a card and you hope he'll retain his humanity. William "Biff" McGuire as Lily Dale's stepfather speaks volumes even though he says very little and Kevin Breznahan is properly unctuous as his grand-nephew Carson. Jacqueline Williams is likeable and convincing as the maid who is the one constant holding things together with food and a sympathetic ear. Beatrice Winde makes two amusing entrances as a maid from an earlier time in the Kidder's lives, one of which result in Lily Dale's heart-rending remembrance of singing "Billy Boy" to the son she'll never see again.
Not the least of Young Man's satisfactions are provided by Thomas Lynch's set. The living room's curtained doors allow for moments of light to enter the house when things look darkest. The 1950's furnishings of the Kidder's living room are lovingly recreated right down to the tufts edging the upholstered furniture. Equally authentic are David C. Woolard's costumes--the print dresses with their matching belts, Lily Dale and Etta Doris's outfits complete with perky little hats.
While the Longacre Theater production differs from the 1995 production--different cast and director as well as script changes--the tiny Signature Company deserves credit for bringing it to life, not to mention the attention of the powers that be who award the Pulitzer Prize. That prize sent the play on the road, to Boston and Chicago and Houston, and now back to New York--this time a Broadway house. Coming hot on the heels of a very different but also satisfying drama, (How I Learned to Drive), this latest "real" play gives a further boost to my sense of optimism that the theater may indeed be strongerer than the gloom and doom sayers would have us believe.