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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Carpetbagger’s Children’

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote never

ceases to reward receptive audiences with his gently dramatized, affectionate

and poignant stories about Southern families. In "The Carpetbagger’s

Children," Foote’s structure is minimalist and the world he creates

requires only three women and their memories.

The women are the daughters of a Union soldier who found his fortune

in the Confederate town of Harrison, Texas. They are consigned to

an oral history of their lives as specifically as they are relegated

to the borders of their own portion of the stage. Harrison, it should

be noted has often stood in for Foote’s own hometown of Wharton, Texas.

Each sister, usually seated in an easy chair and on occasion on her

feet, relies on monologue. With only an occasional acknowledgment

of the other, they tell the family story that begins during post Civil

War Reconstruction. They talk of the land and of the money their father

(now dead) amassed as he made his way from carpetbagger to county

tax collector. But they also talk of the toll his matriarchal madness

had on them.

The play’s lack of action or interplay may, at first, seem like an

unnecessary or lazy conceit; the stories they tell often overlap with

slight but significant modifications. More important, or surprising,

is that none of these women is afflicted with behavior that might

be construed as incorrigible or eccentric (this is not Southern Gothic).

Don’t imagine, however, that the possibility for an emotionally and

dramatically satisfying drama is out of reach. In Foote’s capable

hands (no pun intended), it is not.

The author of such lovely plays as "The Trip to Bountiful,"

"The Young Man From Atlanta" (1995 Pulitzer Prize) and the

screenplays for "To Kill a Mockingbird" (Oscar winner), and

"Tender Mercies," has written a jewel of a play.

It won’t take you long to become entranced by the actresses

— Roberta Maxwell, Jean Stapleton, and Hallie Foote (the playwright’s

daughter) — as they draw you into the Thompson sisters’ lives

and memories.

Governed by an autocratic father and nurtured by a mother descending

into dementia, the practical Cornelia (Maxwell), defiant Grace Ann

(Stapleton), and the placid, uncomplicated Sissie (Foote) have their

turn and take their turn setting the records straight. These are rooted

in precious fragments and painful incidents that may or may not trigger

the next monologue. And these are mostly about living isolated lives

in a town where, though they are wealthy and prominent, they are resented.

The father’s decision to never split up the family’s assets and properties

creates ruptures among the brood. It is the splintered relationships

that we see revealed in deeply personal histories that include a legacy

of scorned husbands and boyfriends. Maxwell is excellent as the business-minded

sister who, though she has been entrusted with managing the family

estate, becomes the victim of a deceiving suitor.

Stapleton is terrific as the embittered feisty sister who rebels against

her father, elopes with a poor man, and is disinherited. Given a lovely

and fragile performance by Hallie Foote, who has made a virtual career

of playing her father’s heroines, Sissie has a marriage that is only

sanctioned when her husband signs a document in which he relinquishes

his rights to any inheritance. Under the sensitive direction of Michael

Wilson (artistic director of the Hartford Stage where the play had

its premiere), these heartfelt memories and reveries of a time, a

place, and a family will stay with you long after the play has finished.

Three stars. You won’t feel cheated

— Simon Saltzman

The Carpetbagger’s Children, Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln

Center, New York. $60. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Through June 30.


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