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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
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
Center, New York. $60. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
Through June 30.
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