Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Carepetbagger's Children

Charming ‘CARPETBAGGER’S CHILDREN’ at Ensemble

Horton Foote, the author of ‘THE CARPETBAGER’S CHILDREN, now in production at Ensemble Theatre, is an American treasure. At age 92, he is still writing stories, plays and film scripts that are rich in imagery and examine the intertwining effect that individual family members have on each other. He is a two-time Academy Award winner who also has been recognized with a Pulitzer Prize, and an Emmy and Tony Award.

Foote, who authored such film scripts as ‘TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD‘ and ‘THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL,’ has been called “the American Chekhov.” And, he well deserves the title as evidenced in ‘THE CARPETBAGER’S CHILDREN.’ This is a well written script in which Foote’s language and creation of illusion, allows us to clearly understand the motivations of a southern family unit interwoven with hidden layers of paternalism, half-truths, and stubborn righteousness.

The memory play echoes with the aftermath of the Civil War, the “War of Northern Aggression,” in which southern families lost dignity and pride and tradition as well as much of the land that they loved.

Interestingly, the family we observe is not a true southern family. It is one created when a Northerner, a carpetbagger, who came to Texas following the war, obtained a position through politician patronage, and became wealthy by buying up masses of land from the destitute plantation owners.

Set in mythical Harrison, Texas, the story is told by three sisters. In alternating monologues, Cornelia, Grace Ann and Sissy give us their history, a history filled with ambitions, estrangements, jealousies, resentments, loves, births, deaths, embezzlements, stabbings, shootings, bankruptcies, abandonment, legal actions, funerals, senility and happy optimism. All this is done with charm and southern civility.

Foote, asks, “in the end, what is truly important in our lives, what are those lingering questions and regrets that will haunt us, and what is it that remains when we are gone?”

This is not an easy script to develop. It is all talk, no action. With a lesser cast and a less clear image, it could be a bore. The Ensemble production is not a bore. Under the watchful eye of Lucia Colombi, the production is charming. It is well paced and well nuanced.

Hester Lewellen, as Cornelia, the oldest sister, is wonderful. She gives a focused characterization and gives the clear illusion of a rock-like woman, who remains a pillar in spite of the strife and stresses going on around her.

Lissy Gulick is Grace Anne, the middle sister, who defies the family to strike out on her own and follow her heart into a questionable marriage, showing another side of quiet rebellion. This is also a fine performance.

Mary Jane Nottage, as Sissy, the youngest sister, displays the right level of air-headedness, the little voice, and the wide-eyed wonder to fully develop her role. Unfortunately, in Martin Cosentino’s set design, she is stuck in the lower corner of the thrust set, and is constantly forced to swivel her head in order to be exposed to the entire audience, causing some distracting movements.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble’s production of ‘THE CARPETBAGGER’S CHILDREN’ is a go see. It is a charming and well-developed presentation of a play by one of America’s best modern writers.