Friday, December 18, 2009

Actor's Diary: God's Country

Bryce Pinkham plays the roles of Brother Vaughn, Pete Davenport and Felix Barclay in The Orphans' Home Cycle

Bryce Pinkham, Maggie Lacey and Bill Heck on the porch swing at the Vaughn (Brooks) family home (Courtship and The Death of Papa)

“Well son, how do ya’ll like God’s country?” The man addressing me is Harry Goudeau. He is a hay farmer from Hungerford, Texas. He wears a weathered khaki shirt, brown work pants, and carries a loaded 20-gauge shotgun. Down here, where people are ‘tough as boots,’ Harry is steel-toed. Secretly shaking in my city shoes, I reply “We like it… We like it real well.” Shortly after dispatching, with military precision, numerous clay pigeons to their maker, Harry concedes, “I’m glad y’all had a chance to come down here and see how the real people live.” Harry Goudeau is not a man to disagree with; luckily I concur- I’m glad we’ve come too.

It is our week off from the plays and alongside Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey, our Cycle’s leading duo, I have made a pilgrimage to Horton Foote’s hometown, the place that nurtured the real life versions of his characters from cradle to grave. We arrive well past midnight in Wharton on the nimble heels of a temperate breeze, a friendly ‘heads up’ from the Gulf. The town is quiet and dark as we search North Houston Street for the Foote family guesthouse. “It’s the one with the red door,” we’ve been told, probably built before the need for an address. As we settle in for the night I am confronted by the simple calm of this place, a far cry from the city atmosphere we have inhabited for the past four months. I am beckoned to sleep by the somnolent holler of the late night train whistle and the early patter of Texas-size rain drops slapping high fives with the Pecan trees in the yard. For the first time since we started rehearsals in June, I feel myself relax.

Our first stop the next morning is thirty steps away. Other than a modest plaque outside, Horton Foote’s childhood home is as simple and humble as any other on the street. I feel an odd sense of déjà vu entering the house whose onstage avatar we inhabit in the plays 1918 and The Death of Papa. Across the threshold, we are immediately drawn to the mantelpiece. Having recently toured the Connecticut home of another treasured American voice, Mark Twain, I can’t help but draw immediate parallels and note particular contrasts between the two houses. It is said that Mark Twain used to tell stories to his children every night, inventing characters and situations based on the various bric-a-brac and bagatelles that resided on his famously ornate mantle. Horton’s mantle, like the rest of his house, politely declines such Twainian ostentation, but indeed has stories of its own to tell. Home to more than precious curios, it shelves the very people who inspired so many of Horton’s plays, particularly his Orphans’ Home Cycle. Among pictures of Horton with Presidents, movie stars and grandchildren are family portraits of generations past. One of my favorite moments of the entire trip is watching Bill and Maggie discover and comprehend a framed picture of “themselves” (they play Horton’s parents.) As we explore the rest of the house in silent reverence, I can just imagine the sounds of children scampering down the hallway, around the sunlit kitchen and out through the backyard. It strikes me as the perfect family home: the living spaces are open and connected, and yet there remain plenty of places to disappear to, plenty of spots to curl up with a good book.

My boon discovery for the day is Horton’s study, the room where he would retire to read and write. The entire length of the room on one side is home to a collection of books and plays that would make any theatrical bookworm jealous. Kitty corner to Horton’s personal library, among a flotilla of awards, medals and memorabilia, I discover a pair of unassuming relics. The first is a bible that appears to have belonged to Albert Horton Foote, Horton’s grandfather and the patriarch whose death occurs in the first act of The Orphans’ Home Cycle. Right beside it is another bible that once belonged to Tom Brooks, my character’s father, and the patriarch whose death ends the cycle. It is easy to imagine Horton in his chair, cloaked in the afternoon sun, leafing through the worn pages of the two books and contemplating the next family story to resurrect for the stage. It won’t be the last time on the trip I am reminded that these people we have done our best to bring to life were not just characters to our playwright, they were his flesh and blood.

Our gracious hosts on this visit, the proud Whartonians Charles Davis and Betty Joyce, are friends of the Foote family and, thankfully, everybody else in town. It only takes a quick spin around the block for them to prove themselves vast repositories of knowledge for everything Wharton. Over the next few days we will be treated to a whirlwind tour of the town and the many landmarks that bear relevance to the plays and our playwright. We will see Horace Sr.’s dry goods store, The Vaughn family home, the courthouse square, the convict farm, the train station, and the boarding house. One of our first stops, in between diagonal blankets of cozy gulf rain, is the Wharton graveyard. Amid strong gusts of wind, rebel shafts of sunlight occasionally sneak past their storm cloud captors to warm a few lucky headstones. Sleuth-like in our search, we eventually find Albert Horton’s actual tombstone, the one that Horace spends the entire cycle saving money to buy. At its base it reads ‘erected by his son’. We visit everyone from Mrs. Cookenboo to Bobby Pate to the entire Vaughn (or rather Brooks) family lot. With the help of our erudite guides we discuss the various characters, the odd web that connects them all, and how each met his or her demise. Someone asks if it is odd to stand in front of our own character’s graves. Admittedly, the feeling is somewhere between macabre admiration and shuddersome pride. We can only hope that what we have been able to do with the plays is a fitting homage to the group of eternally reposed beings couched at our feet. Finally, we stop in front of the graves of Horton and Lillian Foote and are silent. It is in this moment that the whole experience becomes entirely real. Within minutes of us standing there, the wind resumes its previous bluster and the sky releases squadrons of grape-size pugilists, pelting us back to the cars.

It seems to me that the opportunity is rare for an actor in our country’s predominant theatrical model to conduct what I would call primary research. Our trip to Wharton is a chance for us to talk to real people, visit real places and tap the literal source of our playwright’s inspiration. It has added an entirely new dimension to our work, one that will make itself known in obvious ways (nothing helps dialect work like talking to a native), but also in ways that are untraceable, but nevertheless perceived. While our opportunity has indeed been unique, it has further convinced me that as actors we must take responsibility and ownership of our roles as creative detectives if we aspire to obtain the artistic agency that our current model sometimes seems to deny.

On our final day in Wharton we enjoy a picnic by the river, (I now know what Barbeque is supposed to taste like), a skeet shoot (I think my shoulder is still bruised from an exhilarating first experience with a firearm), and a Texas sized bonfire under the stars. In five short days we have been welcomed into this place in a way that feels like family. It’s true what they say, everything is bigger here, even the mosquito bites (which I have managed to limit to under one hundred). As our return flight circles New York, the city’s neurotic rush waiting for us below, I feel fuller, better equipped, dare I say- prepared for rehearsal the next day. I anticipate the return from Wharton’s profoundly spacious landscape to the cramped and crowded streets of the city may prove to be a bit of an adjustment. Nevertheless we are all looking forward to bringing a little Wharton to the Signature Theater Company, our hearts, minds and sleep schedules full of Texas.

Click here for more photos from Bryce, Bill and Maggie's Trip

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