Of the many memorable moments in Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle , a three-part, nine-hour production being staged through early May at the Signature Theatre Company’s Peter Norton Space, in Manhattan, perhaps none is more quietly arresting than the prologue. A young man rides a train from his home in the fictional Texas town of Harrison to Houston, circa 1910. He strikes up a conversation with an older woman who settles into the seat across from him. The subject soon turns to religion. The young man says he doesn’t know if he’s ever been baptized, and the woman reacts with shock. His eternal fate, she claims, hangs in the balance.
This scene lasts only seven or eight minutes. The dialogue is unhurried and plainspoken. Little seems to be happening. But economically and imperceptibly, the Wharton-born playwright and screenwriter—who passed away last March—lays out the themes that obsessed him for a lifetime. The ongoing search for home. The migration away from the small towns of Texas to the big cities. The struggle to make peace with God before we die.
What a glorious coda: The Orphans’ Home Cycle consists of nine plays, written three decades ago, that Foote arranged in chronological order and was editing at the time of his death. The production, which originated last year in Hartford, Connecticut, and which is expected to transfer to Broadway in the fall, is a stirring rebuke to anyone who has ever dismissed the writer as a sentimentalist with narrow, regional appeal. The timing couldn’t be better either. The Orphans’ Home Cycle premiered just as Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart was opening in theaters, a movie that plays almost like a remake of Foote’s classic tale of country and western redemption, Tender Mercies (1983). This year also marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Trip to Bountiful (1985), a story of displacement and yearning that seems all the more relevant as whole communities continue to wither in the Great Recession. With one final project, a film titled Main Street , starring Orlando Bloom and Colin Firth, set to premiere later this year, it feels as if Foote might finally be getting his proper due: as a stage giant every bit as influential and enduring as American masters Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and David Mamet and as a screenwriter who—more powerfully and precisely than any other artist—captured the Texas experience in the twentieth century.
Born in 1916, Foote famously left Wharton for Dallas at age sixteen with dreams of becoming an actor. As legend goes, it was the choreographer Agnes de Mille—who later worked alongside Foote at the American Actors Company, in New York—who suggested that he transform the stories of his youth into stage plays. He wrote television plays and film scripts, including the adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which won him an Oscar. But it wasn’t until he was nearly seventy, with the release of Tender Mercies , that anyone seemed to appreciate the singularity of his talent. The story of a recovering alcoholic musician named Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) clinging tenaciously to the love of a good woman (Tess Harper) even as life keeps knocking him sideways, Tender Mercies is occasionally contrived (would a young widow, no matter how desperate and lonely, so readily fall in love with such a wastrel?). Yet the screenplay showcased the writer’s exquisite grasp of the rhythms of rural life, not to mention his understanding of the way faith informs the lives of so many Southerners. Note the climactic scene in which Mac tries to make sense of the death of his daughter (Ellen Barkin), at once raging at God and yet never considering giving up on him. “I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died,” he explains resignedly to his stepson (Allan Hubbard), “and I still don’t know a blessed thing.” Mac will simply carry forth and treasure God’s “tender mercies” when they come.
The movie earned Oscars for both Foote’s screenplay and Duvall’s lead performance. The writer capitalized on this success by turning out, in rapid succession, four independently financed film versions of his plays, including The Trip to Bountiful and three titles from The Orphans’ Home Cycle (see “Foote Prints”). Taken together, these films are all a tad stage-bound and twee. But they returned Foote home, to the fictional realms of Harrison and Bountiful, once prosperous but decaying burgs that function as stand-ins for Wharton. Foote appreciated how a birthplace gets into our bones, even when we’ve been cast away from that place—a quintessential theme not just of Texas but of the industrial-age United States. First written for television in 1953, Bountiful follows the elderly Carrie Watts (played in the film by Geraldine Page), who lives in an apartment in Houston with a feckless son (John Heard) and his harridan wife (Carlin Glynn) and is desperate to make one last visit to her childhood home. “Time is going,” she pleads with a ticket agent at the train station (and if ever a single line of dialogue could be said to have earned someone an Oscar, it’s this one, delivered with agonizing urgency by the great Page). That none of Carrie’s people are left in Bountiful is a painful irony from which Foote never flinches. Indeed, anyone who ever regarded Foote’s canon as dewy and elegiac need only watch the brutal moment when Carrie arrives at the town neighboring Bountiful and learns that an old friend—her last connection to the place—has died just days earlier. Behind the homespun scenarios and folksy dialogue was a writer who liked nothing more than to let his characters twist in the harsh Texas wind.
If it took Hollywood a long time to come around to Foote, it took the New York cognoscenti even longer. It wasn’t until 1994, when the Signature Theatre Company staged a full season devoted to his work, that critics began to take him seriously. (Signature is also one of the producers of The Orphans’ Home Cycle .)