"The Carpetbagger's Children," the lovingly embroidered new play by Horton Foote, is fragile and intricate, yet possessing a homespun beauty that can best be appreciated when the pattern is viewed as a whole.
The past is the focus of this carefully crafted family drama, which Lincoln Center Theater opened Monday at the Mitzi Newhouse after regional productions in Houston, Minneapolis and Hartford, Conn.
We are in the presence of three sisters--Grace Ann, Cornelia and Sissie--whose father, a Union soldier, settled in Texas after the Civil War and prospered. He became one of the area's largest landowners, and it is the land that ties together and divides these siblings.
No one tells family stories better than Foote, whose output includes more than 60 plays, including "The Young Man from Atlanta" and screenplays for such movies as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Tender Mercies." It's not that there are any startling revelations or galvanizing dramatic moments in "The Carpetbagger's Children." Still, in less than 90 minutes, these women become real people, sad, funny, foolish and, at times, heartbreaking.
Their tales are told in monologue form, graceful memories that alternate with one another. Slowly, a sense of family and a sense of history in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, emerge, from the post-Civil War period well into the 20th century.
Director Michael Wilson has staged the work as if it were a chamber opera, and he has three distinct ladies--Roberta Maxwell, Jean Stapleton and Hallie Foote--who give it a special glow.
Stapleton plays Grace Ann, the oldest and most rebellious of the trio. Grace Ann defied Papa, married a bounder named Jackson Le Grand, and what's worse, threatened to sue the family to get some of the land her father had so painstakingly acquired. Stapleton's comic, fluttery demeanor is just right for this woman, whose major decisions in life always seemed to turn out wrong.
Maxwell is Cornelia, the sensible one, the daughter entrusted with the family's financial affairs because of her common sense. She also is the most poignant, a proper woman abandoned by a would-be beau after he borrows a large sum of money from her. Maxwell conveys her repressed sadness with a touching dignity.
Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter, portrays Sissie, the baby of the family. Sissie is sweet-tempered, accommodating, always trying to get along in a family where the father and, after his death, the mother, still control things. She has the woman's blissful good nature down perfectly.
All these remembrances take place in designer Jeff Cowie's genteel and inviting parlor setting, which been warmly lighted by Rui Rita. It makes you want to sit down and share a cup of tea.
The essence of "The Carpetbagger's Children"--as in most of Foote's plays--lies in its details, an accumulation of facts and opinions about people, most of them living in that small Texas town. These bits and pieces, particularly when divulged by three splendid actresses, make for a very satisfying whole.
Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.