Review: The Orphan’s Home Cycle, Part One

Originally reviewed for

The late Horton Foote is known for his detailed, closely observed plays about lives in small-town Texas. That might sound dry and dreary, but his plays are anything but; Foote focuses on genuinely humane individuals trying to make worthwhile lives in the face of attacks from the many human monsters that the Lone Star State begets.

The Orphan’s Home Cycle follows one such honest soul, Horace Robedaux, from childhood through adulthood, over the course of nine one-acts spread out over three evenings. Part One takes us all the way back to 1902, showing an even more desolate and monstrously forbidding environment than Foote’s other plays.

There are not one but two onstage deaths from what we would recognize today as liver failure due to alcoholism. It’s a harrowing way to go, and director Michael Wilson has not flinched from portraying it honestly. The first such death is in Roots in a Parched Ground, in which Horace’s father Paul (played by Bill Heck, who plays Horace for the great majority of the cycle) lies in his deathbed, having taken to drink after his marriage fell apart.

Paul’s family is an educated, scholarly, citified bunch originally from Galveston, ill-suited for the hard realities of surviving in a small town. The impressionable young Horace goes from wanting to be a lawyer like his father to wanting to turn his back on his family and learn a trade.

He thinks he’s going to be helping run a store, but the second play finds him guarding the titular Convicts, and helping out the irascible plantation owner — and Confederate Civil War veteran — Soll Gautier (a towering performance by James DeMarse). Gautier suffers the second alcohol-induced death of the evening, but where the elder Robedaux went quietly, Gautier undergoes acute paranoia and hallucinations, which turn his inborn meanness into an unpredictable, grotesque horror. Fun stuff!

Lily Dale, the third play, finds Horace (now played by Heck) in 1910 Houston, visiting his mother (who more or less abandoned him when his father died). He tries to reach out to his sister Lily Dale (Jenny Dare Paulin), but is stymied at every turn by his stepfather Pete Davenport (a terrifying Devon Abner), an abusive man whose affection for Lily is more than a little creepy. The least effective piece of the three, it’s still an evocative slice of Texas as it moves into modernity (Davenport works for the railroad and Lily plays rags in addition to classical pieces on the piano).

The Orphan’s Home Cycle is classic Foote — I am excited about seeing parts Two and Three in the coming weeks.  

For tickets, click here.

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