Michael Wilson Suggested Turning Nine Plays Into Three-Part 'Orphans' Home Cycle'
August 30, 2009
In 1974, shortly after his mother died, Horton Foote returned to his native Wharton, Texas, to visit the house where he grew up. He spent the first 16 years of his life — from 1916 to 1932 — in that house before he left his family and the small farming town southwest of Houston to pursue the world of the stage.
Foote sorted through family letters and personal papers, coming to terms with the loss of both his parents. (His father died in 1973.) He discovered his father's search for a "home," descriptions of his parents' marriage and the dispossession of an American community.
Foote, who had left screenwriting and Broadway years earlier for the quietude of New Hampshire when his works went out of fashion, started writing about his parent's lives and the town in which they lived.
For the next two years, encouraged by his wife Lillian, he completed eight of the nine plays which would make up what he called "The Orphans' Home Cycle."
The Cycle begins in 1902 with the death of the father of 12-year-old Horace Robedaux, who represents Foote's father. It follows Horace through adolescence, courtship, marriage and fatherhood. The cycle ends with the death of Horace's father-in-law, a towering patriarch whose demise represents a fundamental change in the times and in the world of the characters.
Seven of the plays were produced over the years off-Broadway and at regional theaters (including Hartford Stage, which presented "The Death of Papa," the last play of the Cycle, in 1999).
Foote eventually came to believe the best chance for the nine related-but-independent works to be seen as a whole was to produce them on film
Foote, who won screenplay Oscars for "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Tender Mercies," began adapting the Cycle plays for the screen in the '80s. He and his family co-produced five of them — "Convicts," "On Valentine's Day," Courtship," "1918" and "Lily Dale" — as independent films or television works. The films featured distinguished actors such as Robert Duvall, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, James Earl Jones, Sam Shepard, Jean Stapleton and Hallie Foote, Foote's daughter, who played a character based on her own grandmother as a young woman.
But efforts to film the entire Cycle were unsuccessful.
The plays never have been produced together until Michael Wilson, artistic director of Hartford Stage and friend and colleague of Foote's for 22 years, proposed that the playwright adapt the nine short plays as a three-part endeavor that could be produced back-to-back, with each three-hour part comprising three of the Cycle's plays.
Foote wasn't sure it could be done, but eventually agreed to a commission from the theater in December 2007. He spent the last months of his life completing what would be his final legacy and the culmination of a lifelong dream. After a reading last summer of the first trio of plays he adapted, Foote knew it was possible, says Wilson, and proceeded to finish the project with all deliberate speed.
The re-envisioned Cycle, set in the fictional town of Harrison — but unmistakably Wharton — will begin performances Wednesday at Hartford Stage, starting with the first, "The Story of a Childhood." Part Two, "The Story of a Marriage," begins performances Sept. 17. Part Three, "The Story of a Family," begins performances Oct. 8. The Cycle is Hartford Stage's biggest, most expensive and most adventuresome endeavor in its 46-year history.
The parts will be presented in repertory, but all three will be presented in day-long marathons just twice: on Oct. 17 and 24, with lunch and dinner breaks. There will be one opportunity to see the plays sequentially, three days in a row, on Oct. 20-22.
(All subscribers will get Part Two and can choose whether to have Parts One or Three for their second selection for the season. The remaining part is available as a non-subscription choice.)
The Cycle is an epic endeavor for the theater, essentially putting on three three-hour productions in the space of two slots for its regular season. Rehearsals began in late June.
After its run ends Oct. 24, it moves to another artistic home for Foote, the off-Broadway Signature Theatre, which is co-producing the Cycle with Hartford
The direct costs alone for its Connecticut run are $1.5 million. Special funding was raised — and is still being sought, with Wilson shuttling to New York to raise money on his day off — to make the production secure.
"You can never prepare enough for a project like this, but at a certain point you also know that your whole life has been preparing you for this," says Wilson, 44.
The show will employ a company of 22 actors, and dozens of designers and theater staffers from both cities.
Knew Cycle Would Happen
On March 4, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foote died at an apartment where he was staying in Hartford with his daughter, who was in the theater's production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." It was 10 days shy of his 93rd birthday and a few weeks before the reading of the final trio of plays in the Cycle.
Foote's spent his last year re-conjuring his extended family, summoning the characters, long dead and buried in Wharton, for a final calling. In this last great family reunion, Foote re-examined the Cycle's grand totality, whose whole spoke more profoundly than the parts. The process was fulfilling, but at times painful, says Hallie Foote, because the characters and stories were so personal.
"I think it was a thrilling time for him but also emotionally difficult," she says.
In writing and re-writing the Cycle, Foote listened to music of Connecticut composer Charles Ives for solace and inspiration. Foote was fascinated by the composer's use of multiple themes and "found music." Music plays an important role in the production as well, with gospel, hymn and popular tunes of the day used as point and counterpoint.
With Ives, "he found a kindred spirit," says his daughter.
"It also reminds me how much both men were misunderstood and misinterpreted," says Wilson. "Horton was often portrayed as a conventional writer, as a realist, even as a naturalist. But he was always an innovator in my mind and you will see that in the Cycle."
He was also a humanist.
Foote once said: "I believe very deeply in the human spirit, and I have a sense of awe about it. Because I don't know how people carry on. I look around and I ask, 'What makes the difference in people? What is it?'"
Busy Last Years
Foote knew before he died that the Cycle would be a reality for in Hartford and New York and that it had secured significant funding with a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
"I try to transmit my passion for the project [in the fundraising]," says Wilson, "and almost without exception it's not been a hard sell. People love Horton and his work and admire that Hartford Stage has stepped up to do this project and they want to help."
But, he says, the endeavor is bigger than he could have imagined.
Wilson says he could not have undertaken this earlier in his 12-year tenure at the theater. It took Hartford audiences time to grow to appreciate the world of Foote, with plays such as "Death of Papa," "The Carpetbagger's Children," "The Trip to Bountiful" and "Dividing the Estate." With the nine plays of the Cycle, Foote becomes one of the most-produced playwrights at Hartford Stage.
Foote's last years were among the busiest of his career. Besides working on what his daughter calls "his greatest legacy," the writer also was returning in triumph to Broadway. The acclaimed Lincoln Center production of "Dividing the Estate," directed by Wilson, earned Foote a Tony Award nomination for best new play of the 2008-09 season and another for Hallie Foote, who played the horrifying and hilarious Mary Jo Gordon.
The playwright died before learning of the nominations, but knew the play would have a future life, with the production transferring to Hartford Stage in May. It became the second-biggest hit in the theater's history, second only to "To Kill a Mockingbird," which preceded "Dividing the Estate" last spring.
Foote also knew that an earlier screenplay was going into production, his first film in years. "Main Street," starring Colin Firth and Orlando Bloom, was shot earlier this year by director John Doyle. (The film is complete but no release date has been set.)
A documentary by Don Stokes and Anne Rapp also began last year with "Dividing the Estate" as its focus, but shifted its attention to "The Orphans' Home Cycle." Their film, "Horton Foote: The Man From Wharton," is expected to be finished next year. CPTV also produced a documentary of its own centering on the writer's relationship with Connecticut, "Horton Foote: At Home in Hartford," which will be broadcast on Sept. 6 at 10:30 p.m. The first comprehensive biography of the writer, "Horton Foote: America's Storyteller" by William Hampton, will be published in September by Simon and Schuster.
"He would have loved being here," said Hallie Foote during a recent break from rehearsals.
Wilson points out that, though Hallie Foote has been a longtime presence with her father in productions as an actress and collaborator, this is the first time she is representing her father as the literary executor of the estate. "It's something that has added an enormous pressure to her, because she feels a huge responsibility as she balances that with her acting load. This is no small task." When asked how she is doing, Hallie Foote says, "I'm OK. I'm good today. I got an e-mail from my sister [playwright Daisy Foote] and she was in Seattle with her new play and she says it makes her sad, wanting to call Dad every day and tell him about rehearsal. That's the thing we miss. It's really hard sometimes on us. It's stupid, too, because he wouldn't have been sentimental about it."
Though compassionate, Foote was not a sentimentalist, says Wilson.
Foote once wrote that as a boy he would hear stories about the past, "a past that, according to the storytellers, was superior in every way to the life that was being lived. It didn't take me long, however, to understand that the present was all we had, for the past was gone and nothing could be done about it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at