The Young Man From Atlanta

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Photo: Monique Carboni Review
One of the joys – and occasional sorrows -- of Horton Foote’s many works is the opportunity to periodically revisit the lives of characters with whom we’ve become acquainted in the past and discovering what has become of them. In the case of “The Young Man from Atlanta,” Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 play that first debuted at the Signature Theatre – and is now receiving a surprisingly minor-key revival there -- we have the chance to check in on a now middle-aged Lily Dale (one of Foote’s most popular characters) and her husband Will Kidder, whose lives have taken a turn for both the better and worse.

While the play is among the most poignant in Foote’s long catalogue, Michael Wilson’s somewhat miscast production robs us of the opportunity to fully experience that pathos -- which is doubly surprising given how expertly Wilson has handled much of Foote’s oeuvre. (His production of “The Orphans Cycle,” a series of nine short Foote plays, remains among my most vivid theatrical memories.)

All seems sunny for the Kidders at the very beginning of the play (set in 1950), as a now-prosperous Will (the terrific Aidan Quinn in a very welcome stage return) is thriving at the grocery wholesale business he helped start decades ago and the couple has moved into a luxurious new house in Houston. (The handsome set design is by Jeff Cowie). But we also quickly discover the couple’s lives have been touched by tragedy: the sudden death (and likely suicide) of their 37-year-old son Bill, and that their failure to fully process what has happened – or even discuss it frankly – has disastrous consequences on Will’s job (as well as their finances) and most importantly, their marriage.

Complicating the situation further is the pair’s opposing views on the ever-unseen title character: Bill’s much younger “roommate,” Randy, who has returned to Houston months after the funeral in an attempt to connect with the Kidders. Will suspects (for reasons ultimately made clear) that Randy is nothing more than a con artist, while the bereft and lost Lily Dale has, against her husband’s wishes, taken pity on him – as well as made him the beneficial of her financial largesse.

While I have probably never written anything bad about Kristine Nielsen, I have to sadly state that this brilliant actress is completely ill-suited for the role Lily Dale. Yes, she can (as Lily Dale can) seem flighty and vain, but Nielsen’s now-signature arch comic line readings and innate intelligence simply do not jibe with her alter ego.

As Foote previously showed us, Lily Dale is (and always has been) a rather selfish and slightly stupid woman; indeed, she’s so naïve that she actually believes Eleanor Roosevelt helped dissuade the black maids of Houston from coming to work during WWII. Moreover, rather than facing her grief, Lily Dale has suddenly buried herself in religion in an obviously futile attempt to avoid the truth. Nielsen goes through the motions, but without enough conviction.

Further, her eventual acceptance of her son – and her son’s fate – should absolute pierce the heart, but Nielsen isn’t quite up to giving us much more than crocodile tears. Fortunately, Quinn is far more effective in this scene, having already delivered a beautifully drawn portrait of a powerful, self-confident man whose entire world collapses, but whom we believe has just enough strength to rebuild it.

Strangely, as well, Wilson’s casting of the show’s supporting roles also proves to be a mixed bag. Harriet D. Foy and Pat Bowie fare best as the couple’s current maid Clara and their past, now-elderly maid Etta Doris; Devon Abner, Dan Bittner and Jon Orsini are capable if a tad colorless in their roles; and Stephen Payne is painfully bland as Lily’s stepfather Pete Davenport, giving no hint of the not-so-nice guy Foote fans know he once was (and which is brought up again here, in a different context). And yes, any Foote play suffers greatly from the absence of his brilliant daughter, Hallie (although, spoiler alert, she actually does have a small role in these proceedings.)

Still, even when a visit with old friends isn’t everything you had hoped it would be, you’ll still likely be glad you made the effort!
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Devon Abner, Dan Bittner, Pat Bowie,Harriet D. Foy, Kristine Nielsen, Jon Orsini, Stephen Payne, Aidan Quinn

Open/Close Dates
Opening 11/20/2019
Closing 1/5/2020

Theatre Info
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036