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The Young Man from Atlanta

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 24, 2019

Aidan Quinn
Photo by Monique Carboni
Many of Horton Foote's plays are set in Harrison, Texas, a fictional small town based on his childhood home of Wharton, Texas. The Young Man from Atlanta, Foote's 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner currently in a revival at Signature Theatre, is set in Houston, but the central characters are Harrison transplants. In this enigmatic play, they are at risk of being swallowed up by the swiftly expanding city, and their hopes and dreams are in danger of being dashed in a socially and economically changing world.

The Young Man from Atlanta begins in the office of Will Kidder (Aidan Quinn), a regional sales manager for a large wholesale grocery business. He has recently purchased a large and expensive home, and he has put a down payment on a new car for his wife Lily Dale (Kristine Nielsen). The audience also learns that just six months before, the Kidders' son Bill drowned in an apparent suicide, but Will keeps his grief at bay. His life is suddenly upturned again, though, when he is fired from his job after nearly forty years with the company.

Lily Dale is having a much more difficult time dealing with their son's death, but she manages to putter around the house and keep up appearances. Previously, Lily Dale had devoted her attention and energy to music, but now she concentrates almost obsessively on religion. Still, she assumes the role of the ideal housewife, catering to her husband's needs and supervising the housework and full-time maid.

Adding to the emotional and financial turmoil is Randy Carter, a certain young man from Atlanta who was Bill's roommate. He does not appear in the play, but Randy is a mysterious figure. He has come to Houston hoping to get a job in Will's company, and Lily Dale has secretly given him thousands and thousands of dollars. Will deeply distrusts Randy, but Lily Dale finds solace in their presumably shared grief over Bill's death.

Taking place in 1950, the play presents a conservative portrait of the United States in a pre-Civil Rights and pre-Stonewall era. African Americans in Lily Dale's social circle work almost exclusively in menial positions, and she articulates her own distrust of liberal politics. Lily Dale fixates, for instance, on the supposed "Disappointment Clubs" of the early 1940s. Also referred to as "Eleanor Clubs," these supposed organized protests were rumored to have been Eleanor Roosevelt's plot to disrupt the lives of Southern whites by encouraging black domestics to not show up for work.

More pointedly, The Young Man from Atlanta suggests that the relationship between Bill and Randy was more intimate than the characters can admit. They cannot even put a name on it, but Will mentions that at his son's funeral, "Randy got hysterical and cried more than my wife." In fact, there is a lot that goes unspoken. Foote shows the lengths people will go in order to hear what they want to hear.

With direction by Michael Wilson, the cast is uniformly strong, and they keep the audience guessing about the uncomfortable truths. Answers about Bill's death, the relationship between Bill and Randy, and the motives of Randy are constantly shifting. Unlike Foote's best plays, however, which offer quieter ruminations of characters facing a transforming zeitgeist, The Young Man from Atlanta feels somewhat mechanical. The exposition is a bit heavy handed, and the appearance of particular characters (including a former maid, portrayed by the excellent Pat Bowie, as well as the arrival of an acquaintance of Bill and Randy) rings as rather too coincidental. Still, the performances express the underlying sadness, trepidation, and anxiousness associated with living in a capricious universe.

The production is up to Signature's usual high standards. Jeff Cowie's set design is appropriately sterile and museum-like (but with a central courtyard, it is somewhat confusing in the layout of the off-stage rooms). Van Broughton Ramsey's costumes are period and class specific, and David Lander's sunny lighting contrasts with the dark truths the characters wish to keep hidden.

Kristine Nielsen and Stephen Payne
Photo by Monique Carboni.
As Will, Quinn is appropriately blustery, and he effectively conveys the bewilderment of a man confronted with aging, infirmity, and a society in which he no longer sees his place. Nielsen offers a moving and finely layered performance as a woman desperate to find solace over the death of her son. In previous roles in works by Christopher Durang and Taylor Mac, and in zany comedies like You Can't Take It with You, Nielsen has been prone to eye-rolling tics and exaggerated vocal mannerisms. Here, her work is admirably restrained. Indeed, the character's flightiness is tamped just below the surface, which makes her occasional emotional outbursts all the more heartbreaking.

Stephen Payne (a last-minute cast replacement) is very good as Pete Davenport, Lily Dale's father-in-law who is caught between the sparring spouses and who may not be the saint-like figure he is imagined to be. Jon Orsini is Carson, Pete's great nephew, another young man from Atlanta. Orsini is suitably unctuous and oily, and he makes the truth of Bill and Randy's relationship ever more elusive.

The play may not pack the wallop it did twenty-five years ago, but The Young Man from Atlanta offers a potent view of the United States on the cusp of social and political change.

The Young Man from Atlanta
Through December 15, 2019
Signature Theatre, The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues)
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