Looking Back At Foote's 'Orphan's Home Cycle'

Nine plays written by the late Horton Foote will have their world premiere at the Hartford Stage theater, collected as the "Orphan's Home Cycle." The plays chronicle a quarter-century in the life of Foote's fictional Harrison, Texas. Charlene Scott reports for member station WFCR.

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Horton Foote wrote more than 60 plays, won a Pulitzer Prize, two Academy Awards, but what he called his magnum opus is only now getting its world premiere, six months after his death at the age of 92.

"The Orphan's Home Cycle" is a set of nine plays premiering at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Charlene Scott of member station WFCR has this story on Horton Foote's legacy.

CHARLENE SCOTT: Horton Foote writes about change, not momentous, world change but the everyday events that can turn our lives upside down. In a 1988 interview with WHYY's FRESH AIR, Foote read from the introduction to a book of his plays.

Mr. HORTON FOOTE (Playwright): (Reading) Change was an early acquaintance in my life. My grandfather, who seemed impervious to all mortal ends, died when I was nine, and the reverberations and changes from that death continued for many years.

It was soon after that I was to see a quiet, serene street in front of my grandparents' house begin its slow but steady descent into a metaphor for all the ugly, trashy highways that scar a great deal of small-town America, and these plays, I feel, are about change.

SCOTT: Those grandparents lived in Wharton, Texas. Foote grew up there and transformed Wharton into Harrison in his plays, creating a town full of people who traverse "The Orphan's Home Cycle." In that regard, New York Times critic Ben Brantley compares Foote to August Wilson.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Critic, New York Times): Among American playwrights, only Horton Foote and August Wilson have created cycles of plays - Eugene O'Neill wanted to and never quite completed it - but cycles of plays that show an entire culture over a period of time, a very small corner of the world in both cases. For August Wilson, it was the neighborhood known as The Hill in Pittsburgh, and for Mr. Foote, it was Harrison, Texas. But they found universal resonance in that tiny part of the world.

SCOTT: Some critics have denigrated Foote's work as sentimental and simplistic. Not so, says Michael Wilson. Wilson knew the playwright for 30 years, and he's directing "The Orphan's Home Cycle."

Mr. MICHAEL WILSON (Director, "The Orphan's Home Cycle"): In "The Orphan's Home Cycle," we meet real characters. There are a lot of drunkards, a lot of violent people. There are people that are having kind of wild sexual lives. This is not a quaint, small town. There is a lot of underbelly life going on, not unlike what Tennessee Williams explored, but he did in a much more bold graphic way. Horton does it in a much more quiet subtle way, and most of those events in Horton's plays take place offstage, and we're told about them.

(Soundbite of play, "The Orphan's Home Cycle")

Mr. BRYCE PINKHAM (Actor): (As Brother Vaughn) Sister, I'm in trouble.

SCOTT: In the seventh play of "The Orphan's Home Cycle," "1918," Bryce Pinkham plays Brother Vaughn. Maggie Lacey is his sister.

(Soundbite of play, "The Orphan's Home Cycle")

Ms. MAGGIE LACEY (Actor): (As character) What have you done that's so terrible?

Mr. PINKHAM: (As Vaughn) There was a letter just now waiting for me at home from a girl in College Station. She's having a baby. She wrote me she thought I was the father.

Ms. LACEY: (As character) Are you?

Mr. PINKHAM: (As Vaughn) I could be.

Ms. LACEY: (As character) Are you going to marry her?

Mr. PINKHAM: (As Vaughn) No, she don't wanna marry me. She don't wanna have the baby. She wants to get rid of the baby. She wants me to send her $100 right away.

Ms. LACEY: (As character) Oh my God, brother.

SCOTT: The plays trace the lives of the Vaughn, Rabideaux(ph) and Thornton(ph) families from 1902 to 1928 through courtship, marriage, war and pestilence. Foote's daughter, Hallie, has acted in a number of her father's plays. She performs four different roles in "The Orphan's Home Cycle," and she says every time she steps into one of his characters, she discovers new levels of intricacy.

Ms. HALLIE FOOTE (Actor): On the surface, you know, there's a kind of a simple line, and you think, oh, well, this is a story that not a lot happens, and people don't seem to be saying a lot. But all of a sudden, as you start working on it, you see that they're saying many things. It's immensely complex. Things just sort of start morphing and revealing themselves, and the plays get richer and richer and richer. And often, you know, they just kind of sneak up on you.

SCOTT: They can also smack you in the face. Foote can be brutal and unsparing about what happens to his characters, says critic Ben Brantley. He points out that "The Orphan's Home Cycle" takes its title from a line by poet Marianne Moore: The world's an orphan's home.

Mr. BRANTLEY: Home is a permanent institution where you are going to be safe and protected from the outside world. It doesn't really exist. People will die around you. The walls will fall down. There's a line from one of the plays in the "The Orphan's Cycle," "Cousins," where a character says: Family is a remarkable thing, isn't it? You have it, and then you don't. It passes you by. And that sums up the spirit of his work as well as anything I can think of.

SCOTT: But it's a tough lesson for many of Foote's characters to learn as they continue to search for that illusory notion of home and family. As Foote said in 1988, longing for the past doesn't help people get on with their lives.

Mr. FOOTE: I certainly think there are certain values in the past that we would be foolish to ignore and not to cherish and not to try to learn from. But every day you read what a terrible age we live in. Well, I've heard that all my life. I don't think any age is really any worse. There are just new problems, is all, and different problems.

SCOTT: Horton Foote never stopped writing. He was working on a new play when he died this past March. "The Orphan's Home Cycle" continues through October 24 at the Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut. It then moves on to New York.

For NPR News, I'm Charlene Scott.

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