Etta Doris Meneffree enters late in the second act of Horton Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta, and her stage time clocks in at barely ten minutes. Yet this character and the actor playing her, Pat Bowie, offer a jolt of clear-eyed tension otherwise missing from Signature Theatre’s revival of a work that, although written in 1995, looks and feels like a relic of an earlier era in American drama. Etta Doris’s presence raises the stakes, however briefly, and shows the audience the full potential lurking beneath the fusty exterior of this formulaic family tragedy.
Until her appearance, Michael Wilson’s production strikes an inconsistent tone that wavers somewhere between extreme naturalism and self-aware parody. Foote’s play itself is partly to blame. Although it won the author his only Pulitzer Prize, at the age of 78, it mostly unspools as a series of recognizable clichés from the mid-century realist playbook, underlaid with a current of queer innuendo that feels quaint at best and offensive at worst. It is often difficult to tell whether Foote seeks to deconstruct these familiar tropes or wallow in them.
Many in the audience will surely feel like they’ve already met Will Kidder (played here by Aidan Quinn), the boisterous man at the center of the drama who believes whole-hog in the American dream. The braggadocious attitude he displays in the play’s first scene is as identifiable as his precipitous downward trajectory, as he loses his job, health, and financial stability in rapid succession. Stripped of his identity at the age of 61, he resembles Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman with a slight Southern drawl. (This play, like most of Foote’s works, is set in his native Texas.) Half the action revolves around whether Will can climb out from under the weight of his own pride and accept a world that’s changing around him at a rapid pace.
The other half concerns the troubled relationship between Will’s wife, Lily Dale Kidder (Kristine Nielsen), and the unseen title character. We learn in the exposition-heavy early moments that Will and Lily Dale’s only son, an ascetic bachelor living in Atlanta, has died several months earlier under mysterious circumstances. Will believes that Bill Jr. killed himself—he walked into a Florida lake, despite lacking the ability to swim—but Lily Dale, clinging to a newfound religious faith, won’t hear of it. Instead, she builds a secret relationship with Randy Carter, their son’s former roommate, clandestinely funneling him large sums of money when his grief prevents him from keeping a job. The twin tensions of Will’s sudden unemployment and Lily Dale’s growing dependence on the enigmatic young man threaten to erode their comfortable suburban life.
The true nature of Bill Jr.’s relationship to his roommate is never verbalized—the play is set in 1950, after all, and the Kidders are the kind for keeping up appearances—but it doesn’t take much to sniff out what’s left unsaid. And therein lies a major problem, at least by contemporary standards. Foote, a heterosexual writer, may have set out to pierce through the patina of homophobia that existed in America at that time, but he ends up falling into its traps of presenting gay men as lying, predatory, and dangerous. Neither Bill Jr. nor Randy, the two coded queer characters, is even given a voice, so they cannot speak for themselves. We experience them entirely through a straight lens, which consigns them either to pity (Bill Jr.) or suspicion (Randy).
The closest advocate they get is Etta Doris, who worked as a maid for the Kidders when they were an upwardly mobile young couple. In probingly layered writing, Foote allows this character to pull the wool from Will’s eyes and acknowledge the cost of ignoring his son’s true nature. Holding herself upright on a cane, Bowie’s physical presence is all composure and rectitude, and she infuses every line with a wellspring of recrimination. She is the only character who sees the Kidders as they truly are, who understands the damage they’ve done to a person they loved. Quinn, who elsewhere works himself into a blustery lather, finds a devastating stillness in this scene.
The emotional efficacy is short-lived. Wilson mangles the tone of the first act, where constant questions about money are pitched to boulevard-comedy levels of farcical overstatement. Nielsen, a fine actor in the right role, is tragically miscast here, turning the grieving, fragile Lily Dale into a hoydenish caricature. Stephen Payne—as Pete Davenport, Lily Dale’s stolid stepfather—deadpans to the point of catatonia.
The play’s conclusion, which seems to suggest the coming cultural shift from the placid postwar period to the looming social upheaval of the 1960s, instead feels forced and bathetic, and various strands of sub-plot fail to cohere. The lingering presence of Pete’s grand-nephew Carson (a likable Jon Orsini), also from Atlanta, is never fully integrated into the main story. Carson, it turns out, lived in the same rooming house as Bill Jr. and Randy—but although Foote uses Carson to muddy the waters surrounding their relationship, the full effect of his story is hardly felt.
The Signature forces supply a handsome physical production, although Jeff Cowie’s scenic design looks slightly more austere than you might expect from Will’s description of a then-modern suburban home. Van Broughton Ramsey’s costumes are more identifiably authentic, and John Gromada’s interstitial music goes a long way in setting a haunted tone that’s missing from much of the direction.
But Bowie deserves the greatest praise. Proving yet again that there are no small parts, she briefly realizes the full power of this play—a promise that only fitfully comes to life elsewhere.