LAKEWOOD — The people who populate the 1995 Pulitzer-Prize Winning Play “The Young Man From Atlanta” are as recognizable to you as, well, playwright Horton Foote’s familiarity with his hometown: Wharton, Texas.
And those well-acquainted with Foote’s work know how familiar that is.
The renown, late Foote, is perhaps best known as the author of “The Trip to Bountiful” and the 1962 screen adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Foote has spent his writing career basing much of his work on his native, small Texas town. With sensitivity and honesty, Foote chronicled its residents dreams, disappointments and their indomitable spirit while dealing with adversity.
They’re ordinary people, flaws, positive traits and all. Foote shows an Arthur Miller-like concern about them.
You can see for yourself through a splendid Beck Center for the Arts’ production of “Atlanta” through June 28 in the intimate Studio Theatre.
The play is a tear-jerker, but Foote’s sprinkling of humor throughout keeps it from being unbearably depressing. The humor, which causes head nodding, familiar laughter, arises organically from the situations in which these well-meaning, but certainly imperfect people find themselves.
In the 1950s set play, Will and Lily Dale Kidder are faced with difficult conflicts and questions.
The play deals with, among other things, coping with loss and a changing business world where loyalty and longevity no longer matter.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because “The Young Man From Atlanta” shares commonalties with “Death of a Salesman,” Miller’s tragic masterpiece about a salesman whose delusions about the American dream and loyalty are shattered.
Will shares a similar viewpoint with “Salesman’s” Willy. To the former, a competitive, optimistic, hard worker can succeed by attaining “the best and the biggest.” Being well liked doesn’t hurt either. And his unrelenting pursuit of his version of the American Dream may have cost him a good relationship with his son.
Kidder has been working for the same Houston company since he was a young man. But the time’s come for a younger man to take his the job, says his boss (a compassionate but straightforward James Alexander Rankin).
Ultimately, this play is about uncertainty and how one deals with it. Today’s tension-filled world filled with unknowns enhances the play’s timeliness.
There’s uncertainty as Kidder must leave the company and seek loans from banks to open a business, uncertainty as he’d just bought a new home (designed spaciously and elegantly by Aaron Benson) before being fired and uncertainty as Kidder isn’t a well man.
The unknown also factors into the circumstances of his son’s drowning (or was it suicidal, foul play?) death at age 37 when he walked into the deep end of a Florida lake on a business trip, knowing he couldn’t swim.
As the characters seek financial favors from each other, which force tough decisions, your heart goes out to these people.
Foote has drawn these characters with dimension, humor and sensitivity.
Your concern heightens and you become riveted as a young visitor with ties to the couple’s son makes claims about the younger Kidder and the roommate with whom he lived with in an Atlanta boarding house. His comments about the Kidders’ son and their roommate pit his assertions against the roommate himself.
Who do we believe? Which version is the truth? What was the Kidders’ son’s relationship with his roommate? Does one need to know the truth in such a situation? Can your own theory provide you with enough comfort and strength to move on, remembering such a person as you knew him?
We’re left to ponder.
This is no lie: Under Eric Schmiedl’s detailed, sensitive direction, the Beck’s cast shines.
Dudley Swetland’s putting on a master class in nuanced, naturalistic acting as Kidder.
Swetland has stepped into Kidder’s skin, disappeared into it and the character has fully emerged.
A fist pump, closed eyes, a hushed tone of voice and subtle facial gestures all strengthen the emotional impact of the words. Gesture and dialogue work in tandem, never seeming rehearsed or forced. Kidder’s less nuanced moments, including his emotional hurt and vulnerability and explosive anger, also come across naturally.
As wife Lily Dale Kidder, Anne McEvoy’s performance could use a little more variety; she basically wears the same worried, near panicky look on her face throughout. Still, her Lily Dale’s nervousness and concern, obvious with the wringing of her fingers, is palpable. It’s obvious this Lily Dale, with her authentic sounding sobbing, cares deeply for and loves her husband.
Lily Dale has support to lean on. There’s the couple’s maid, Clara (Tina D. Stump, played with the compassion of a nurse tending to sick child), Lilly Dale’s stepfather, Pete Davenport (a kindly, laid back, affable Michael Regnier) and an old friend and former maid of the Kidders, Etta (a spirited and spiritual Brenda Cassandra Adrine).
Providing less comfort is Davenport’s great nephew, Carson (Kyle Huff, who plays him with a mixture of politeness, confidence and just a hint of a bad boy aura that make you wonder who the real Carson is.)
The equally mysterious roommate, the young man from Atlanta that gives the play its name, never appears on-stage. But he’s the catalyst for much of the action, a major character and Foote provides just enough details about him to bring him alive.
This isn’t just a nostalgic, wistful play. It’s a sad, tough play to swallow, although the end provides hope and is cathartic.
Does knowing the full truth necessarily provides full closure?
To think it does just might be an illusion.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Young Man From Atlanta”
WHEN: Through June 28. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays as well as 3 p.m. Sundays.
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood.
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $13 for children 12 and younger, $15 for people age 13 through college, $29 for seniors 65 and older and $32 for adults. Call 216-521-2540
Aaron Krause is a Reflector Staff Writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org