There Are Lots of Loose Ends in the Young Man from Atlanta, Now at Beck Center 

Drowning in questions

There IS a reason that stage plays do not often sound like real people. It is because real people, this writer included, are not all that interesting when we speak normally. Our actual conversations are suffused with empty space-fillers, clichés, yawning pauses, and (in my case) a gratuitous use of fucking obscenities.

All of this verbal clutter is usually there to keep our daily dialogues lubricated and, more importantly, so we can avoid telling hard, honest truths. The playwright Horton Foote is a craftsman when it comes to capturing real human speech, and that is both a strength and a weakness of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Young Man from Atlanta, now at the Beck Center.

Although generally well-acted by the Beck company, the direction by Eric Schmiedl skitters along the surface of Foote's realistic but often banal writing. It's a vexing challenge to turn ordinary people talk, with all its digressions, into compelling theater. And that only happens in fits and starts in this production.

The whole effort doesn't exactly get off to a rousing start, as 64-year-old Will is bragging to a young co-worker Tom (David Hetrick) about the expensive house he's just built and crowing about how he only settles for "the best" in everything. Trouble is, there is so much linear, fact-by-fact exposition in the first scene (including a reference to the recent death of Will's grown son) that it makes the average Wikipedia entry seem like a befuddling poem from The New Yorker.

Fortunately, something does happen in real time in that scene: Will is shit-canned and replaced by Tom, the young man he hired. The remainder of the play takes place in the Kidder's new digs, on a handsome, period-perfect set designed by Aaron Benson, but which reveals no signs of a house just moved into. Of course, home is now not so much of a refuge: Will's wife Lily Dale has become obsessed with religion since the death of their only child.

Set in 1950 in Houston, Texas, the play is wrapped around a mystery and a secret. The mystery: Why did the Kidder's 37-year-old son Bill, a non-swimmer, drown after apparently walking into a lake in Florida? The secret: What was the role the eponymous Young Man played in that tragedy? Will wants nothing to do with that man from Atlanta, but Lily Dale is drawn to him and, we learn, even forks over tens of thousands of dollars to him.

The Young Man is never seen on stage although, according to other characters, he hovers just at the margins — weeping copiously at Bill's funeral, contacting Will repeatedly and hanging out at the Houston YMCA. In theory, this is an interesting way to structure a play, as all the characters are continually relating to and being influenced by the two men who are invisible. And as the play progresses, curiosity builds about what kind of relationship the Young Man had with Bill — just good friends? gay lovers? blackmailer and victim? con man and mark?

As Will, Dudley Swetland does a lot of the heavy lifting, laying out the exposition early on and then showing how this accomplished and confident man has been brought low by circumstances beyond his control. Swetland is good enough that you feel bad when he's forced to say, "I've lost my spirit, I'm whipped." We already got that, from Swetland's nuanced demeanor.

The uber-talented Anne McEvoy is a tad less successful as Lily Dale. McEvoy conveys the tragic desperation of this woman; but a later scene, when she reveals how she misled her husband about an odd tryst (or almost tryst?) with another man, lands with a perfunctory thud. In the thankless role of Pete, Lily Dale's stepfather who lives with the Kidders, Michael Regnier is a calming but rather amorphous presence.

In smaller roles, Tina D. Stump plays the Kidder's current maid with Cheshire cat grin, and Brenda Cassandra Adrine limps in as the elderly former maid who stops by to recall the clan's balmier days. Kyle Huff and James Alexander Rankin provide quick sketches of Pete's great-nephew and Will's new young boss.

Playwright Foote leaves many questions unanswered in this play. And that is just dandy, since the mysteries and secrets at work in this family create a riptide that threatens to sweep all the characters out to sea. But Schmiedl's direction, while compassionate and skillful, doesn't provide this material the motive force to make the unseen threats palpable.

And that makes The Young Man from Atlanta a bit too cluttered and meandering, and not quite honest enough.


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