The Young Man From Atlanta

By Horton Foote
Directed by Peter Masterson
Starring Ralph Waite
Huntington Theatre, Boston (National tour) June, 1995

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Horton Foote's The Young Man From Atlanta may not be the dullest play ever produced, but one sincerely hopes that it is the dullest play ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The production seen at Boston's Huntington Theare is a road version of Signature Theatre's 1995 prize-winning one, on its way to Broadway with the original designers, director, and cast led by Ralph Waite. The acting in it is more than competent, rising to extraordinary in the supporting roles played by James Pritchett and Beatrice Winde; the alienating set, by E. David Cosier, is suitably symbolic; Christopher Akerlind's lights go on and off and stream through the huge picture window--- all in the service of a script that seems to want to warn its audience about the numbing effects of go-getter values on the American soul. Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to these numbed souls, struggling to express their narrowed lives with language numbed to the level of a Chamber-of-Commerce brochure, is an experience designed to drive an audience comatose.

The play is set in Houston in the fifties, and covers much the same territory Arthur Miller explores in his "All My Sons" and "Death of a Salesman". There's nothing wrong with that. The business of America is business -- exploring the profit and loss involved in that set of priorities is a job big enough for teams of artists, working in shifts and putting in overtime. Even for a comfortably upper-middle class audience like that of the Huntington, the dread of losing a job, and with it one's social identity, is very real these days. There can be few dramatic situations more timely. And the dread of failing a beloved child, of losing an only child, is vivid and accessible to anyone who has ever been part of a family. The bereft parent has been a surefire object of audience empathy since people first began to ease their hearts by telling stories.

So why when Horton Foote's Will Kidder says, " I tried to be a good father, but I just think now I only wanted him to be like me, I never tried to understand what he was like." is there no gush of tears, no rush of catharsis? It's certainly not the fault of lovable Ralph Waite, who packs his hesitations and silences with a world of subtext. Partly it is the fault of the dead language, mirroring the hero's deficiencies of mind and heart, and partly it is because the author has not supplied enough vivid and specific detail for the situation to register as true and deserving of tears.

Will Kidder is a sixty four year old man who was a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Will has had a very successful forty year career in the wholesale poultry business, by deliberately dulling his intelligence and his senses so that he has no conscious knowledge of a life beyond busy-ness and boosterism. Will set out to acquire "the best of everything" , and the author makes sure that we get the message that to Will Kidder and his dutifully pliable wife Lily Dale "best" has no meaning beyond the shallowest tokens of status. They are indeed "Kidders" -- fooling themselves.

Unconsciously, Will and his Lily may know better. Snippets of principle, glimmers of human sympathy, occasionally threaten to break through their defenses. On the day that the play begins, Will , who had "weathered the Depression with flying colors, when the rest of Houston was on its knees," is fired. Fate, or the playwright, has dealt the man a shock, and there is a hope that this shock may force him to examine his life and change. But like his dutifully dim wife, whose stock responses could serve to illustrate Marx's dictum that religion is the opiate of the people, Will is determined to persist in the behavior that has estranged him from everything that gives life depth and meaning. And he is determined to bore us, and everyone else in the play, by telling us this in the long monologues that pass for conversation in the cluelessly self-absorbed.

Will tells us how he moved to a new house in a new neighborhood every time he took a step up the economic ladder, discarding servants and old friends. Will tells us that he has just built a $200, 000 dollar house just for himself and his wife. He tells us that he thinks of his assistant Tom Jackson, whom he trained, as a substitute son--- even as we notice that Tom is not encouraged to contribute much to the conversation. Will tells us that his own son Bill, his only son, inexplicably moved to Atlanta to live in a boarding house after the war; and that when this son, a bachelor, drowned at the age of 37, Will was not able to share with his wife the wide-spread suspicion that the drowning was most probably a suicide. Will tells us that Bill's roommate, the "Young Man from Atlanta" of the title, has been hovering around trying to see him, but all Will wants is to get rid of that Young Man. Will tells us that his wife, Lily Dale, has become very religious, and that the Young Man told her that Bill had also become religious in the year before his death--- people could hear their son praying all over the boarding house. Will tells us that he suspects that the Young Man is making up these stories about Bill, probably to get money out of them.

If you are like most of the Huntington audience, you have will guessed from this information, delivered in the first twenty minutes, everything that is going to happen to Will and his wife over the intermissionless next hour and forty.

Watching these two thrash around avoiding confrontation and insight is excruciating. The author, who has lived with these characters for years, must have more patience than a saint. Certainly he has more than Jesus, who whipped the moneychangers out of the Temple and declared that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

How rich are the Kidders, and what does their use of their money say about American values? This is very odd. Horton Foote isn't writing ancient history. He was an adult in 1950. The figures that are given in the plot are astounding. Will Kidder made gifts to his son, and his son turned over to his roommate, $100,000--- easily the equivalent of a million today. Will is a businessman man who is so rich that even in the heyday of high marginal taxation he could afford to give his wife $5, 000 every year for Christmas for fifteen years-- in today's money, nearly another million. $5,000 was more than a breadwinner's wage in 1950. A family could live on it in comfort. What fraction of that did Will pay his maids, Etta Doris and Clara? Will and Lily Dale own what would be today a two million dollar house--- paid for, mortgage free. When Will is fired the couple may have a little cash flow problem, but unlike the Lomans, or the aging salesmen in GlenGarry Glen Ross, they aren't facing ruin. Will at 64 is old enough to retire on the social security instituted by Lily Dale's demon President Roosevelt, possibly supplemented by a company pension.Whether Will retires now because he is forced to do so, or in a few years when he chooses, his financial situation is better than that of 99% of his fellow Americans. Certainly it's better than that of the two "colored" maids who offer him sympathy. Domestic workers were never included in the social safety net: for them it's work until you drop.

Does any of this ever occur to Will? No. He won't let the loss of his job give him some perspective on work, any more than he would let the suicide of his son teach him about love. Will says, finally, "I don't want to know. If I go back to work and you start teaching, Lily Dale, everything will be all right."

It's a long journey to arrive at this dead end, and a terrible disappointment.. Horton Foote has been writing plays for longer than poor Will Kidder had been alive, back there in 1950. Foote's had plenty of time to take the measure of his father's generation, that defining generation, born before the turn of the century, that built the world we live in now. He understands them well enough to expose their limitations, and it seems that he forgives them: The Young Man from Atlanta isn't satire. But it isn't tragedy, either. He leaves the audience feeling superior to the Kidders' pain, and bereft of the wisdom that is suffering's recompense.