Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dramaturg's Diary: Running the Orphans' Marathon

Saturday, October 17th, marks the world premiere marathon of Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle at Hartford Stage. I have actually never participated in a theatre marathon of this magnitude and intensity before, though I do know the basics of marathon-watching. Eat protein. Hydrate. Stretch at the intermissions. And, according to Will Cantler, our Casting Director and an experienced marathon-watcher, “Don’t over-caffeinate.” Caffeine aside, there is a definite buzz of anticipation in the lobby of Hartford Stage, as HS staffers hand out marathon badges, pins, water bottles, peanuts, and other accoutrements to aide us on our epic Orphans’ journey.

At 11AM we take our seats for Part One of the cycle, The Story of a Childhood, which consists of the acts Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, and Lily Dale. Having seen this section performed a little over a month ago, it is exciting to see how it has progressed. Even though I have been reading, eating, breathing, sleeping these plays (as has everyone else involved in this project, both on and offstage) I still see new resonances every time I watch them. At one point in Roots in a Parched Ground, I catch my breath when one character says a – seemingly innocuous – line and the impact of what will happen to him five plays later hits me with full force.

After a boxed-lunch arranged by Hartford Stage at the Hilton Hotel, we resume with Part Two: The Story of a Marriage (consisting of The Widow Claire, Courtship, and Valentine’s Day) at 3PM. At this point in our journey, we firmly plant ourselves in Harrison, Texas and get to know a new generation of residents, as well as follow up with some already familiar from previous acts. Although Horace remains the central character, we meet some very strong, complicated women who drive the action, in the form of his two love interests, Claire Ratliff and Elizabeth Vaughn. I find this section unabashedly romantic and yet the more I see it, the more I recognize how Horton has woven bittersweet truths about family, adulthood, and sacrifice, amidst the joy and exhilaration of finding one’s soul mate.

We return to the Hilton for dinner after the close of Part Two and sit down to Elizabeth’s Crowd-Drawing Mac and Cheese, Miss Ruth’s Pecan-Crusted Tilapia, and Ed’s Ganado Barbequed Beef Brisket (all of the menu items for both lunch and dinner are named for characters in The Orphans’ Home Cycle). Everyone is dying to talk about Orphans’ with the first person they see. They have become quite attached to and invested in all of the characters, whom they have come to think of as friends or even family. After dessert, as we ready to return for Part Three: The Story of a Family (1918, Cousins, and The Death of Papa), someone says, “I hope no more bad things happen to Horace!” I just take a final gulp of my Admiration Coffee (“A cup of Southern Hospitality!”), knowing that Part Three is actually a particularly turbulent time for Horace and his family, as they face war, disease, and a harsh economy.

The breadth of this journey, both Horace’s and ours’, really hits home for me in this part. My head spins a bit when I see the matriarchal Corella Davenport and Inez Kirby (Annalee Jefferies and Pamela Payton-Wright) in their twilight years, sitting together on Horace’s porch in the final act, The Death of Papa. I recall them in Roots in a Parched Ground, which suddenly feels like a lifetime ago, when they were Corella Robedaux and Inez Thornton (Virgina Kull and Maggie Lacey) sitting on the Thornton porch, playing guitar and singing “Beautiful Dreamer,” with little idea of what the next twenty-six years would have in store for them.

Part Three also heralds the arrival of Horace, Jr., (Dylan Riley Snyder) the character Horton Foote modeled after himself. He appears only in The Death of Papa, but his birth is announced in 1918. When Mrs. Boone asks Mr. Vaughn, “Was it a boy or a girl?” and he replies, simply, “A boy,” I get chills, as even though we are nearly at the end of the cycle, one feels the beginning of something else. It is a boy, and he is going to tell all of your stories, I think.

And then it’s over. The giddy excitement of the occasion has transitioned into a sense of awe and profundity. I can’t help remembering the first reading of Parts One and Two at Lincoln Center Theater in January 2009, when Horton was still with us. I have been told that at that reading he knew for the first time that he had something, and that these nine adapted plays would work. Now we have proven him right. Yet although we feel this immense sense of accomplishment, we still have a long road ahead of us, as in two weeks the company arrives at Signature for their five month residency with us. But if Horton and The Orphans’ Home Cycle marathon have taught us anything, it’s that the journey can be as rewarding as the destination.

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