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.