BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Drawn partly from his father's life in small town Texas, author Horton Foote's nine-play "The Orphans' Home Cycle" concludes with its third installment billed as "The Story of a Family," which opened Tuesday at Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space.
Beginning in the early 1900s, "The Story of a Childhood" grouping of three plays traced young Horace Robedaux's miserable times as the forsaken offspring of a bitterly broken family. Covering the years 1912 to 1917, "The Story of a Marriage" trio considered Horace as he slowly starts to get ahead in life and achieves happiness by finding a wonderful, understanding wife in Elizabeth Vaughn.
But such hard-won satisfaction is shown to be fleeting as "The Story of a Family" opens in a pouring rain in a graveyard.
The first play, "1918," is a heartbreaking account of how the Spanish Flu epidemic sweeps into the town of Harrison with a vengeance. Friends and relations die even as the stricken Horace feverishly fights to survive. The next, "Cousins," occurs in 1925 as Horace tends to his struggling haberdashery business and copes with an assortment of relatives including his ailing mother and selfish sister Lily Dale.
The final play, "The Death of Papa," views the aftermath of the sudden passing in 1928 of Elizabeth's father, the wealthiest man in Harrison. Elizabeth's reckless brother and irresolute mother lean heavily on Horace, but amidst his many concerns, Horace finds time to pay attention to his growing son. The trilogy ends quietly as Horace and his family sit down to supper together.
Perhaps the old adage "count your blessings" is the greater theme for "The Orphans' Home Cycle" as Horace endures many troubles to find contentment in the warmth of his marriage and home life. For all of the ambition and social complexity of this series, Foote illuminates the hard times of a relatively humdrum man to celebrate those often overlooked little victories that make life worth living.
In editing these nine full-length plays to one-hour versions each, Foote — who died last March at the age of 92 — compressed time significantly to the point where occasionally the action seems oddly choppy. But for viewers who invest their affections in the characters, witnessing the engrossing arc of Horace's personal journey plus the sincere realism of the acting goes a long way to ease such bumps in the text.
Truly giving an ensemble performance, some 20-some actors do beautifully by the many people of long-ago southeastern Texas. Maturing believably in sober looks and attitude, Bill Heck's deep-feeling Horace manfully shoulders his burdens. Maggie Lacey positively glows as ever-supportive Elizabeth. The one and only Hallie Foote (the playwright's daughter) not only nicely depicts mournful Mrs. Vaughn but in "Cousins" shines drolly as a nouveau-riche relation who reports her disappointment with Europe.
James DeMarse's imposing but sweetly awkward Mr. Vaughn, Bryce Pinkham's reckless Brother Vaughn and Jenny Dare Paulin's self-absorbed baby doll of a Lily Dale are other standouts. Characteristic of the supporting company's range, Virginia Kull is totally convincing whether she portrays a mentally slow teenager or an elderly spinster quivering with an ancient family grudge.
A co-production by Signature and Hartford Stage, this memorable trilogy has been directed with much sensitivity by Michael Wilson and realized with understated excellence by designers Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber (sets), David C. Woolard (costumes), Rui Rita (lights) and John Gromada (original music and sound). Kudos to everybody concerned, including the stage management.
Incidentally, anyone snaring tickets to this virtually sold-out series who wants to find out what happens later in Horace's life should read Foote's Pulitzer-winning "The Young Man From Atlanta," which is a rueful tale of his sister Lily Dale's later years. Be warned — seeing nine hours of Foote's works tends to make you want even more.
The three parts of "The Orphans' Home Cycle" continues through March 28 at the Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org.