In the beautiful, moving new production of Horton Foote's "The Young Man From Atlanta," Shirley Knight plays the wife of successful Houston businessman Will Kidder (Rip Torn), who, at 61, has just been fired by the son of the man he founded his company with.
Every time Knight sits down, she has a wonderful piece of business: She picks up the hem of one of her graciously designed midcalf-length dresses and spreads it out. The gesture, perhaps the vestige of some long-ago cotillion, signals how the couple clings to habits and values that are rapidly becoming outmoded.
The year the play is set, 1950, makes it seem a quaint anachronism, especially against the very '50s fieldstone wall of the new suburban house that Will and Lily Dale Kidder have just bought.
It is another telling image for a couple that, although relatively young, find themselves in an alien, hostile age.
The play was first done two years ago at the Signature Theater, where it won the Pulitzer Prize. This current, stronger production, superbly directed by Robert Falls, was first done earlier this year at Chicago's Goodman Theater.
The play takes place 6 months after the couple's 37-year-old son has drowned. (There is justifiable conjecture that the death was a suicide.) The title character, whom we never see, was his roommate in an Atlanta boardinghouse. He's in Houston to prey on Lily Dale, nurturing illusions about her son that make her eager to give the friend money.
Money is important because Will Kidder, still a dynamo, wants to start a new business, and Lily Dale cannot give him back the money he has given her over the years. Nor can her courtly stepfather, Pete, who lives with them.
Many of Foote's plays are set in the Southwest, in gentler times, the years after World War I. Here there is a sense of breakdown in such venerable American values as trust and loyalty, a collapse against which both Kidders are defenseless.
Torn gives Kidder a heroic quality. You can see the pugnacious salesman in him, always plugging away, but you also sense a nobility beneath his hurt features that gives the character great depth.
Knight, with her almost fatiguingly gracious manners and her perfectly wrought Kate Smith hairdo, makes Lily Dale eloquent and poignant without missing the comic undertones of her vulnerability.
The rest of the characters are impeccably cast and played, especially the stepfather, William Biff McGuire; an elderly maid, Beatrice Winde, and the man who fires Will, Stephen Trovillion.
Thomas Lynch's handsome set captures the aspirations and emptiness of '50s America artfully. David C. Woolard's costumes are wonderfully inventive.
The second act tells us little we don't already know and a lot that seems extraneous, but the final scene, with Torn and Knight, is extremely powerful.
Many of Foote's plays seem little more than vignettes. "Young Man" is far more ambitious and impressive. In this production, it is far easier to see why it won a Pulitzer.
''A PACKARD!'' answers the man, in a voice that shoots like a cannonball through the Longacre Theater, when asked what kind of car he plans to buy his wife.
As Rip Torn pronounces this particular brand name, with a bluster that verges on the evangelical, it's more than an automobile he's talking about: it's a credo. For Will Kidder, the aging Texas businessman Mr. Torn portrays in the new, heart-wrenching production of ''The Young Man From Atlanta,'' Horton Foote's 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, such words, along with more abstract ones like ''competitive spirit,'' are talismanic.
Say them heartily enough, Will seems to believe, and perhaps they'll hold off the growing suspicion that the bottom's falling out of your life. His wife, Lily Dale (Shirley Knight), has her own code of reassurances, evident in the way she formally arranges the folds of her skirts every time she sits down. ''There, there,'' she appears to be telling herself. ''Everything's in place, now.'' But Mr. Foote, a sly, compellingly quiet playwright whose compassion for his characters is matched only by his refusal to coddle them, doesn't let Will and Lily Dale linger on solid ground. They may have just built a handsome, top-of-the-line house in Houston, in its boom days of the early 1950's. But notice that the moving crates in their spanking-new living room are never unpacked during this beautifully acted drama.
It seems most improbable that the Kidders, who recently lost their son for reasons they will not be allowed to understand, will ever feel securely at home again.
To some degree, ''The Young Man From Atlanta,'' which opened last night, arrives on Broadway presold. It has not only the Pulitzer imprimatur but also a sheaf of enthusiastic reviews from its initial run at the Signature Theater Company two years ago, when it was greeted as the crowning achievement of Mr. Foote's uncompromising life in the theater. (He was then 79.)
Still, there were reasons to doubt that the play would soar on Broadway, scarcely a hospitable home for understated drama these days. ''Young Man,'' when first seen in a small, tightly focused production as part of a Horton Foote season at Signature, seemed most likely to transfer to an Off Broadway house, with its original, widely praised stars, Ralph Waite and Carlin Glynn, and its director, Peter Masterson.
So here it is, reincarnated with a different director, Robert Falls, and different leading actors, who somehow have to translate Mr. Foote's gentle language of indirection into performances that reach the balcony without exploding the play. It is one of the season's happier surprises that they manage to do just that.
A lot of this has to do with the galvanic presence of Ms. Knight and Mr. Torn. Both actors, who flared brightly among the constellation of young Method-steeped stars who emerged in the 1950's and 60's, have been seen only infrequently on New York stages of late. And it's as if they have somehow been storing up and nurturing both the force and the finesse that this production requires.
They get all the small regional footnotes of gesture and inflection just right. But these actors also convey the sense of an internal furnace of pain and anxiety that gives a fevered glow to such minutiae. The effect is that of a short story with the soul of a tragedy.
Moreover, under Mr. Falls's well-balanced direction, which knows just how far to scale up the work's comedy and pathos, ''Young Man'' emerges as bigger in theme and scope than one might have remembered. On one level, it suggests the tidy, stacked-deck domestic comedies of the decade in which it is set, and it doesn't entirely escape the artificiality of that genre.
But unlike most practitioners of such theater, Mr. Foote doesn't build to big curtain speeches and climaxes of revelation. He operates from the assumption that life is a slow, steady series of unanswerable questions and losses against which there is finally no protection.
And in bringing this perspective to an affluent family in flush, postwar America, he tidily subverts that era's mythology of materialism. It's not so much a moral judgment as an awareness that creature comforts can comfort for only so long.
As in many of Mr. Foote's plays, the image of the house is dominant. Here, it is embodied to perfection by Thomas Lynch's plaid-curtained, shiny-surfaced living room set, a monument to period consumerism. But neither of the home's owners, Will and Lily Dale (in terrific, era-specific clothes by David C. Woolard), seems at ease there, and it's telling that they have yet to finish unpacking.
The well-upholstered fortress of their lives is suddenly under siege, and from a number of directions. In the play's first scene, Will loses his job of many years, just as he's sunk a bundle into the new house. And he and Lily Dale have yet to come to terms with the death of their 37-year-old son and only child, Bill, who lived in Atlanta and drowned during a business trip to Florida.
Since Bill couldn't swim, the death was probably a suicide. Why? His mother and father don't have a clue. But the young man of the play's title, who was Bill's roommate and who is never actually seen, has words of comfort for the parents, if they choose to listen. Will does not; Lily Dale does, even at the cost of deceiving her husband and giving the young man money to help out with an assortment of bogus-sounding crises.
It may be hard to believe in the age of Oprah and the memoir of dysfunction, but there has always been an American school of positive thought that suggests that if you don't talk about the darkest aspects of life, then they don't exist. This creed of evasion has consistently informed Mr. Foote's dialogue, and it's particularly in evidence here.
When Lily Dale tells her elderly stepfather, Pete Davenport (William Biff McGuire, in a marvelous, dryly self-contained performance), that a friend of hers has committed suicide, he responds, ''She was from Harrison, wasn't she?'' The important thing for Pete is to be able to nail her into the scheme of things rather than consider the implications of her act. And in a balder declaration, Will, when Lily Dale speculates on just what hold the young man from Atlanta had over their son, answers: ''I don't want to know what it is. Ever.''
Mr. Foote is arguably in too much of a rush to have the unspoken spoken before the play's end. But there's not a single performance here that can be faulted. Mr. McGuire's laconic, willfully blank Pete (who can achieve suggestive wonders of low-key mannerisms while planted in an armchair); Marcus Giamatti, as the apologetic but practical business associate who replaces Will, and Jacqueline Williams, in a lovely, freshly considered turn as the Kidders' maid, are all first-rate.
So are Kevin Breznahan as Pete's dopey-seeming but cagey great-nephew, and especially Beatrice Winde, as an elderly former housekeeper of the Kidders who, proudly biting into conversation with her new-looking upper plate, unwittingly leads her one-time employers into painful emotional territory that they have carefully sought to avoid. You feel you've known every one of these characters for ages, even as you acknowledge Mr. Foote's point that really knowing them is impossible.
Then there are Ms. Knight and Mr. Torn, who are the best reasons of all to see ''Young Man.'' The splendid Ms. Knight, who doesn't waste a single fluttery gesture, brings an Ibsenesque weight to a woman frozen in the role of petulant, spoiled child bride. She's what Nora might have become if she had squelched her doubts and stayed on in her doll's house.
And Mr. Torn has an imposing quality of emotional largeness that brings mythic dimensions to this small-scale drama without bursting its seams. His face, at times the very image of gruffly smiling, good-old-boy virility, can dissolve, instantly and harrowingly, into something like the mask of tragedy made flesh.
One is also always aware that Will's hearty friendliness and assurance are the flip side of a volcanic, despairing anger. And that if this couple consciously acknowledged everything they felt about each other, they would be acting out a Strindberg scenario. There are, however, to borrow another Foote title, tender mercies in self-deception. This gentlemanly dramatist has the mercy, as life itself usually does, to leave his characters with just enough illusions to keep on living.
As the grieving protagonist of Horton Foote's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Young Man From Atlanta," Rip Torn bellows with the conviction of a "born competitor," a self-made Houston businessman in "the best city in the best country in the world." Yet for all the Texan bluster, he and the play are most remarkable for their unstated sorrow and quiet, brooding sense of loss. Enigmatic at its best (and patchy at its worst), Foote's compassionate, if dark, play about life's frailty might itself be too fragile to support the exalted expectations with which it arrives on Broadway, but its affecting portrait of shattered illusions (and the first-rate cast that presents it) won't soon be forgotten.
Torn plays Will Kidder, a 63-year-old, cowboy-booted businessman whose 40-year devotion (the year is 1950) to his company doesn't prevent the firm's new, young owner from replacing Will with a younger man. The firing comes at a bad time: Will has just built a big home (nicely rendered in '50s upper-middle-class style by set designer Thomas Lynch), ordered a new car and, by far worst of all, has yet to recover from the drowning death six months prior of his only child, 37-year-old Bill.
While Will has buried his grief with work, wife Lily Dale Kidder (Shirley Knight) has turned to religion, silently reading Bible passages beneath barely suppressed sobs. Her sorrow more evident than her husband's, Lily Dale also has found some comfort in her son's "roommate," a 27-year-old man who gives the play its title but is never seen by the audience. The young man lived with Bill in Atlanta, and tells Lily Dale exactly what she wants to hear: that Bill had found religion, was happy --- and did not commit suicide. So grateful is she for these comforting notions that she has given the destitute young man thousands of dollars, a practice she keeps hidden from her husband, who has forbidden any contact with the friend.
But when Will must ask his wife for money to start a new business, the sad shape of her bank account forces her to come clean. What goes unspoken (though it's made clear) are Will's suspicions that his son and the young man shared more than friendship. Were they lovers? Was the young man a hustler, blackmailing Bill and prompting the suicide? The play offers only hints, avoiding revelations as carefully as Will and Lily Dale avoid facing the truth about their beloved son. "There was the Bill I knew and the Bill you knew," Will says to Lily Dale, "and that's the only Bill I care to know about."
Secondary characters are woven into the simple plot, some with more success than others. Pete (William Biff McGuire) is Lily Dale's stepfather, a tranquil, soothing presence during a time of upheaval. Visiting is Carson (Kevin Breznahan), Pete's great nephew who was acquainted with both Bill and the mysterious young man in Atlanta.
Does Carson know the truth, or does he have a financial agenda of his own? Again, the play only hints, and here it seems more clumsy and sketchy than provocative. Carson is a device, and an awkward one at that, his arrival in town too coincidental, his character too thin.
At the very least, though, Carson does typify the play's distrust of youth. Will is replaced at his job by the trusted young protege he himself hired, while the man who delivers the pink slip is the arrogant son of the company's founder. In the play's world, youth is forever stripping away the careful illusions that middle age has constructed.
The play's depiction of homosexuality is similarly fearful. There's more of Tennessee Williams here than Tony Kushner, but the parents' unspoken horror does seem appropriate given the 1950 setting. Although the mercenary behavior of the unseen young man could be offensive in an age when gay men know too well the pain of loss and survival, greed and self-interest are traits of nearly every young character in the play, regardless of sexuality. Only Clara (Jacqueline Williams), the Kidders' devoted young maid, comes away with her ethics unquestioned.
Under Robert Falls' unhurried direction, the cast does well in walking the play's gray areas. Torn is powerful in his depiction of a strong man undone by pain, his composure betrayed by fleeting grimaces. Knight is his equal, her stifled sobs and nervous hands showing more of grief than is comfortable to watch. Keeping pace are McGuire as the kindly stepfather (who might have a secret or two of his own), and Williams as the caring, forthright maid. Beatrice Winde all but steals two brief scenes in which she plays an elderly former servant who arrives with condolences and bittersweet reminders of a happier past.
A bit too often these disparate characters and their respective loose ends lend the play a rather meandering feel, and some of the encounters seem more padding than substance. But at its big heart "The Young Man From Atlanta" is about two people who are forced to confront their lives and find new ways of coping. When the husband and wife embrace at the play's end, we wish them the best.