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Do we even need to establish that Nancy Robinette, Kimberly Schraf, and Holly Twyford are all prodigiously versatile, endlessly watchable actors who elevate any piece of material that makes use of them? That the venerable trio shares a bill for the first time in a collective 70-odd years onstage is the major selling point of Ford’s too-deferential take on The Carpetbagger’s Children, one of the last of more than 60 plays and movies Horton Foote left behind when he died in 2009 at the age of 92. The very matter for which adjectives like “bucolic” and “homespun” were coined, this will likely delight those who were born with or have cultivated a taste for Southern-fried family gossip spoken from the diaphragm. If that’s not you, then all the Helen Hayes awards and nominations in the world won’t disguise the slightness and staginess and punctiliousness and pokieness of this thing, a series of barely interconnected autobiographical monologues from the three daughters of a Union Army veteran who migrated to southeast Texas during Reconstruction to make a killing in the cotton fields.
Daddy’s service in the War of Northern Aggression was only the first of many scandals he had to live down among the people of Harrison—the fictitious analogue for Foote’s native Wharton, Texas. Daddy prospers there but cheats himself out of a long-term legacy by forbidding his daughters to marry. The way he figures it, any suitor eyeing his girls is only after their wealth, which is a pretty messed-up view to hold of one’s offspring, all of whom seem likable enough. Cornelia (Schraf) is the outwardly prudent, businesslike one appointed by pater to run the estate after his passing. Grace Anne (Robinette) is the exile who defied him to elope with one Jackson LeGrand, whose very name taxes patrons’ blood-pressure medication more than anything else that happens in this show. Sissie (Twyford) is the sweet-voiced cherub, the type to parrot Mama’s observation “Sissy, I don’t think you’ve ever had a thought or an opinion of your own, ever!” with the cheerful footnote, “I expect that’s right.”
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Unseen but omnipresent in each sister’s recollection is Mama, whose thickening dementia aggrandizes her memory of her husband, awarding him various posthumous promotions before having him switch sides completely. This is one of Foote’s sadder, funnier jokes. I wish there were more here like it.
The degree-removed storytelling that makes that particular joke work grows wearisome over the course of 90 minutes wherein almost everything—scandalous affairs, fights over money, mysterious deaths—is told to us secondhand, albeit by the finest acting talent our city has to offer. But the monologue format robs these bravura performers of the opportunity to feed off one another, and us of the chance to watch them do that. In fact, they barely get to acknowledge each other until they take their bows. If it isn’t their turn to talk, they’re rocking and sewing (Grace Anne) or fussing with the assemblage of framed black-and-white photographs on the lace-covered table at the center of the stage. Twyford does get to sing “The Clanging Bells of Time,” an all-things-must-pass hymn frequently requested by Mama, and she dances here and there, but the impression we come away with is that there’s less movement on this stage than in most presidential debates.
As with every Ford’s Theatre production, The Carpetbagger’s Children is handsomely designed and costumed. Helen Huang’s dresses suggest antiquity but allow the characters to float outside of time, serving Cornelia’s doleful observations about Harrison’s shift to unspecified 20th century modernity: Daddy built his house in 1870, but Sissy recalls driving by the makeshift stockade at the fairgrounds that housed German POWs during World War II, and yet the 2001 play is set, says the program, “now.” So what if the math doesn’t quite add up? That’s how memory works.
Scenic designer Robin Stapley puts a big, beautiful matte paining of a Texas sky behind the three ladies, feeding the piece’s gathering sense of mortality. But that endless sky is ultimately a nuisance that points out the yawning disconnect in the production’s scale: Director Mark Ramont hasn’t found a way to make these monologues fill up the room. These are parlor tales, meant to be exchanged at eye level. And yet we’re either looking way up at these wise, soulful storytellers, or, if you’re in the balcony, looking down.
Foote, who won Oscars for his screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies and a Pulitzer for his play The Young Man from Atlanta, wrote juicy parts for women, even not-young women. Those are rare enough that to celebrate them is understandable. To be fair, many of the people I saw this with appeared to love it. I walked out wondering what King Lear would be like if Shakespeare had chosen to omit all the other characters and just have Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, all having survived to a certain age, sit in chairs and tell us what all happened 25 or 30 years before we came in, without ever getting exercised enough to interrupt one another.