The American dream as a guiding star, historic relic, or unreachable aspiration has been both studied and sullied by playwrights for decades. Never more so than in Horton Foote’s powerful opus, The Young Man from Atlanta, which made its Seattle debut at Stone Soup Theatre on Friday (Feb. 17).
Like Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, which was staged by ACT in 2010, The Young Man from Atlanta is a family drama about time’s tragic passage, rooted in the patois of Texas and the simultaneous optimism and nostalgia of mid-20th century America. World War II is over, Houston is booming, and success seems to be springing up like the hardiest of weeds from the very cracks in the sidewalk. At least, that’s how it appears to 64-year-old good ol’ boy and optimist, Will Kidder (Gordon Coffey). For those forced to look closer, disaster is seen to be sown in equal measure at the feet of each character in the play.
Will’s dead son haunts every scene of the two-hour play, which premiered in 1995. A victim of a swimming accident, or perhaps a suicide, Will’s adult son was living a mysterious life far from home in Atlanta. Will sent him thousands of dollars, yet no one knows how he spent it. He lived with another man who might have been his lover, but no one talks about it.
Some say he became a very religious person while in Atlanta, like his mother, Lily Dale (Maggie Heffernan). Others say this is a lie.
As directed by Maureen Hawkins, the ensemble at Stone Soup Theatre lays an emotionally credible group performance literally at the feet of the audience. The theater space is not much bigger than a gracious Southern living room, with some of the set pieces within kicking distance of the front row, which runs along the edge of the stage floor. The aesthetic distance is unforgiving, but the cast’s conviction never falters, even in the longest of Foote’s “memory monologues,” or when the dialogue walks the perilous line between laughter and tears.
In an era before the concept of age discrimination, Will is ousted by his employer of nearly 40 years, simply because, as his baby-faced boss (Zachariah Robinson) tells him, “We need younger men in charge here.” Will is left with no prospects, besides his overly confident bid to go into business for himself, and no savings, thanks to the huge new house he just had built for himself and his wife.
A paragon of the 1950s flowery chintz school of decorating, Will’s home exudes a restrictive chilliness, thanks to Scenic Designer Suzi Tucker’s cool mint walls, arctic-white mantelpiece, and severely varnished hardwood floor. This supposed refuge from sorrow and place to make a fresh start soon becomes a costly prison for the Kidders.
Foote is a master at weaving a sense of the most profound dreads (death, financial ruin, unbearable anguish) into a scene of sunny security. The Young Man from Atlanta is populated with users and the used. There are those who work themselves nearly to death to provide, and there are those who happily mooch off them. And both parties accept their roles with smiles and nary a complaint.
Except when it comes to the titular young man from Atlanta.
Always lurking outside the Kidders' grand new home, just out of sight but never out of mind, is the former roommate of their dead son, who has come to town to seek them out. He simultaneously embodies the numerous truths that the Kidders cannot face, and the carefully calibrated lies that keep them from finding a sense of peace.
“He calls once a week to talk to me. God knows what he wants,” says Will.
It might be money. A decade younger than their son, he is known to have leeched tens of thousands of dollars from his dead friend, and yet more from Lily Dale.
It might be redemption. At each of their clandestine meetings, he tells Lily Dale of his great friendship with her son, begs to know why her husband won’t speak with him, and comforts her with tales of her son’s piety.
Or it might be something far more complicated, at once more innocent and more sinister. If there is one thing that Foote makes clear in his Pulitzer Prize-winning script, it is the complexity of both truth and falsehood. Neither is simple or knowable. Rather, they are layered, one on top of the other, within each character.
Ultimately, Foote’s play asks whether knowing the truth actually makes an untenable situation more bearable. Perhaps it’s better in the end to keep your illusions, both good and bad.
Stone Soup’s production wisely does not provide the audience with the answer. As a result, the question will linger at the periphery of your thoughts for days, just like the young man lying in wait outside the Kidders’ home.
If you go: The Young Man from Atlanta runs through March 10 at Stone Soup Theatre. Tickets $14-$22. For more information, visit www.stonesouptheatre.com.