By the time the two main characters in Horton Foote's The Young Man From Atlanta sit down to confront their nameless fears during the drama's riveting final scene, most theatergoers are likely to have either forsaken the playwright's meandering spiritual odyssey or determined that the less-than-fruitful trip wasn't worth taking in the first place. Even though the Arvada Center's engaging production of the two-hour tale is tenderly directed, artfully designed and, apart from a few verbal miscues, competently acted, this mishmash of a story (for which Foote unaccountably won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for drama) simply isn't much of a play.
Foote is the prolific author who wrote the screenplays for the highly acclaimed Trip to Bountiful (based on his own 1953 television and Broadway plays) and To Kill a Mockingbird. He sets much of Young Man's action within the newly built, ultra-modern confines of a sleek Fifties house in Houston, Texas (the set is splendidly designed by Charles Packard). Ironically enough, the edifice's proud builder-owners, Will Kidder (William Denis) and his wife, Lily Dale (Sandra Lafferty), prove to be architects of a different sort: Always on the verge of emotional collapse and haunted by the memory of past events--including the drowning death of their 37-year-old son--the aging couple have constructed a life of avoidance, conveniently sidestepping the basic truths and falsehoods that define their decades-long marriage.
In the play's first scene, for example, Will responds to the news that he's been fired from his job by immediately attempting to regain his footing in the business community. However, his grand plans, which multiply threefold in estimated cost over the course of a few minutes' conversation, are jeopardized by his mistaken presumptions regarding the family's finances. It seems that Lily Dale, reacting to heartfelt pleadings from her dead son's ex-roommate (the play's title character, who never appears on stage), has, unbeknownst to her husband, funneled untold amounts of cash to the young man in the vain hope that her "donations" will help alleviate his perceived suffering.
Realizing that she needs to prevent Will from discovering her misplaced charity, Lily Dale asks her stepfather, Pete Davenport (Joey Wishnia), to loan her part of his $30,000 nest egg. Unfortunately, Will has already assumed that Pete's tidy fortune will be available to the 61-year-old businessman to borrow as venture capital. Upon finding out otherwise, Will experiences a brief conniption fit, then suffers what appears to be a mild heart attack--but he somehow manages to be up and about a day later.
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Then we're introduced to Pete's long-lost nephew, Carson (Jordan Gurner), a shifty-eyed, clean-cut drifter who is, coincidentally, also from Atlanta. Inexplicably, he disappears from the Kidder household almost as quickly as he arrived, and we never hear from him again. Soon, Etta Doris (Ruthay), an elderly maid and estranged family friend, materializes out of nowhere. Her impromptu arrival is apparently meant to indicate that both she and Will have somehow cosmically collided at precisely the same metaphorical intersection in life. (The two exchange a few vague, quiet recollections before she wanders off stage.) But Etta's character is less an illuminating force than a galvanizing one: Shortly after her final exit, Will and Lily Dale strike up a long-overdue discussion about their hitherto unvoiced frustrations, failings and longings--precipitated, of course, by the unseen presence of a Boo Radley-type character hanging out at the end of their driveway. A few minutes after they share their pitiable grief, the play ends.
To his credit, director Terry Dodd elicits a series of credible, if uninspired, portrayals from a stalwart cast of veteran performers. Most of the time, the actors shade their characters' lines with a believable Southern twang while adding a few appropriately flighty or swaggering physical mannerisms for good measure. At several moments throughout the drama (most notably during Denis and Lafferty's concluding scene), the actors are able to evoke the play's undercurrents of emotion in a manner that magnifies and ennobles Foote's spare and ephemeral dialogue. When Will reminisces about the various houses his family has lived in, for example, Denis lifts his chin slightly and breaks into a faint smile, instantly shedding years of guilt and regret from the shoulders of a man who, as scripted at least, appears to be stating a mere fact or two. Lafferty follows suit a few minutes later when, as the bustling, image-conscious Lily Dale, she sings "Billy Boy" (during a mildly intri-guing episode of counter-point in which Etta croons "Jesus Loves Me"). Suddenly Lafferty stiffens her spine, almost unconsciously raises her hands to her mouth, and slowly sits on the floor of her own living room, beautifully conveying her character's restrained though palpable anguish.
But the actors' embellishment of Foote's poorly drawn characters can't make up for what the play lacks in focus and structure. It's as if Foote's group of spiritually stunted Texans are cheap, watered-down, two-dimensional knockoffs of their Chekhovian forebears, augmented by a few elements from American playwrights William Inge, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. In Chekhov's case, though, the mad Russian's neurotic depressives were at least laughable when they weren't lovable. And they somehow managed to add up to more than the sum of their individual psychoses when the family unit inevitably disintegrated. By contrast, even when Dodd's actors are at their believable best, you're constantly reminding yourself that you're supposed to care about what the characters are saying and doing. But when Foote's sleepy, disjointed sermon about truth and illusion is finally over, it seems that, dramatically speaking at least, Horton's still in search of that elusive who.
The Young Man From Atlanta, at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, through October 4, 303-431-3939.