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Three old ladies,
sisters who have lived all their lives in a small Texas town, tell interminable tales
about characters the audience never sees, and about incidents from their pasts that have
minimal intrinsic interest. The characters they talk about are all dead and gone, and in
the telling do not give the impression of having been very interesting when they were
alive. All the expected things have happened: family members who wouldn't speak to each
other for decades for some real or imagined slight, minor league betrayals, marriages gone
bad, folks squabbling over inheritances, the old mother sinking into forgetfulness and
then Alzheimer's. Nothing surprising, nothing compelling, nothing dramatic. Some of the
humor comes from stories of how the old mother became more and more demented as she aged,
and they are, frankly, offensive.
That is what the audience is faced with as the house lights dim for
Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children. Foote has had a long and
distinguished career as a playwright and screenwriter. He won an Academy Award for his
screenplay adaptation of To
Kill a Mockingbird; his plays include The Last of the Thorntons, The
Trip to Bountiful, and a long, long list of other powerful and moving dramatic
pieces. Unfortunately, The Carpetbagger's Children seems more like extended notes
for a play, notes on characters and situations to be dramatized and put on stage two or
three drafts down the road.
As it is, the three sisters deliver extended monologues, and almost
never stand face to face and exchange lines of dialogue. There doesn't seem to be any
compelling need in the characters to tell these stories. They are wind-up dolls set in
talkative motion because the play has begun. The theater itself, with seating on three
sides, contributes to the problem since the actors are forced to say a few lines to one
side, then a few to the middle, then a few over there, the movement feels more and more
mechanical--and boring--as the play goes on.
The actors themselves are just fine. Roberta Maxwell plays Cornelia,
the daughter who has always had to shoulder the bulk of family responsibility. Her
performance has its moving moments as she is jilted by a smooth-talking con man, and sadly
reacts to the changes time brings to her beloved small town. Hallie Foote plays Sissie,
the mild-mannered sister who displays less individuality than the other two, and sticks in
the mind mostly as the one who sings. In an annoying blend of the actor's live voice
segueing into her recorded voice, she does indeed sing a lot and her singing adds little
to the play. Watching Jean Stapleton as Grace Ann is, for a while delightful. She does
what she can with the role of the perpetually bewildered sister who marries not wisely and
not very well. It is difficult, though, to forget those happy, long-ago hours she spent
with Archie Bunker and get completely wrapped up in her character.
Director Michael Wilson is faced here with some basic problems which he
has not solved. He has definitely not solved the problem of the three-sided stage; the
actors' movements always seem like "blocking," and rarely like the natural way
people move. And he has not managed to help the actors breathe much life into the
long-winded tales these women tell.
Perhaps no one could.
New York, April 1, 2002
- Roy Sorrels