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Sometimes—fairly often, truth to tell—it takes more than one try for a playwright to get a show up and running. The first version of Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta,” even though it won him the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for drama, wasn’t quite what it needed to be. Not until two years later, by which time it had been rewritten and recast, did “The Young Man From Atlanta” finally move from off-Broadway to Broadway. Even then, it failed to eke out a long run: Foote’s studies of southern family life never have gone over big on Broadway. Over time, though, American audiences came to recognize that the author of “The Trip to Bountiful” was a master playwright, and the Signature Theatre’s new revival of “The Young Man From Atlanta,” which is as good as it can possibly be, makes clear the play’s surpassing excellence….
It is 1950, the highwater mark of postwar American optimism, and Will Kidder (Aidan Quinn), a sixtyish small-town boy who moved to Houston as a young man to chase the American dream, suddenly finds himself at a loss. Not only does he lose his job at the exact moment when he has sunk his capital into a brand-new house, but he discovers that Bill, his only son, who recently died under suspicious circumstances, was a homosexual whose partner has now come to Houston in the hope of cozening money out of Will and his sweet but naïve wife Lily Dale (Kristine Nielsen)….
If all this sounds to you like the set-up of an old-fashioned “well-made” play, you’re not wrong to think so. But Mr. Foote, here as always, was less interested in spectacular eventfulness than in soft-spoken, clear-eyed studies of character. As a result, there are no show-stopping confrontations in “The Young Man From Atlanta.” Indeed, Bill’s partner, the title character, never appears on stage, nor is the nature of his relationship with Bill made explicit. Mr. Foote’s interest, rather, is in people like Will, whom he describes in a program note as “optimistic, hardworking, confident that their world is the best of all possible worlds, admiring business success above all other things.” What do such determined folk do when their luck finally runs out?…
I don’t want to give anything more away, for the whole point of Mr. Foote’s story is in the telling. He is, like Thornton Wilder before him, a playwright who believes devoutly in the significance of “the smallest events in our daily life,” eschewing melodrama to focus instead on how ordinary people cope with life’s struggles. “How can human beings stand all that comes to them?” one of the characters in “The Orphan’s Home Cycle” asks. The answer, quite simply, is that they just do. Sometimes—maybe most of the time—they do so by turning their faces from the truth….
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Michael Wilson talks about Horton Foote: