Justice Denied

Horton Foote's terrific play gets a lukewarm treatment at Ensemble.

At the end of The Young Man From Atlanta, Horton Foote's Pulitzer Prize-winning, postage-stamp-sized masterpiece at Ensemble Theatre, Will and Lily Kidder, a couple who are supposed to be enjoying their golden years, stand forlornly in the new house they can no longer afford, contemplating returning to their former jobs and facing the fact that their only son's death was a probable suicide.

Will is played by Bernie Canepari, with the bulging belly, blazing eyes, and kingly menace of the late George C. Scott. Marji Dodrill's Lily is a fascinating example of casting against type. What should be, in character, a rotund, soft woman is played by a gravel-voiced, scarecrowish actress, sweetly pathetic in a 1950s wig that bears a striking resemblance to a stuffed cocker spaniel.

The mood is mournful and elegiac, yet there is a form of triumph in the air: the implacable determination of born survivors, sons and daughters of pioneers who refuse to crumble.

Foote is a superb regional playwright who, since the '40s, has been chronicling the woes of old-time Texas families succumbing to the ravages of unbridled postwar urbanization and technology. This is by far his best play; it's like Death of a Salesman with the children offstage and a more flexible Willie, who has the stamina to go on. Its strongest virtues are the tantalizingly enigmatic off-stage characters and events concerning the Kidders' drowned son and his mysterious relationship with his former roommate, the young man from Atlanta. As the play commences, this unseen, emotional vampire has come to stalk the parents for money and affirmation.

Foote's play suggests the dark foreboding of Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger re-set in a Life magazine 1950s Dallas, a distorted American Gothic in sepia hues. Lucia Colombi applies her usual sensitive direction, but the delicate nuances have yet to ferment, mellow, and do full justice to Foote's dramatic vintage. -- Joseph

Keith A. Joseph can be reached at [email protected].