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The Orphans' Home Cycle: Part Three

The final installment of Horton Foote's remarkable epic only partially fulfills the promise of the material.

By New York City
Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey in The Orphans' Home Cycle
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey in The Orphans' Home Cycle
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle: Part Three, now at Signature Theatre Company in a co-production with Hartford Stage, is the final installment of what has been a remarkable theatrical achievement -- combining nine of the late playwright's works into one three-part epic that follows the life of Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck), a character based on Foote's own father. However, this last trio, subtitled The Story of a Family, is unevenly presented and only partially fulfills the promise of the material.

The first work of the evening, 1918, chronicles a tumultuous year in Horace's life. The first World War is underway overseas, while back in the character's hometown of Harrison, Texas, a plague-like flu has taken the lives of a number of the town's inhabitants. The play is presented in short episodes that compress time and move through the year's events in such a hurried fashion that the dramatic heft of the piece is sometimes lost. Additionally, several of the performances seem curiously sketched in, which also undermines the drama. This is particularly true of Maggie Lacey as Horace's wife, Elizabeth. A crucial scene in which the character unfolds a secret to the dim-witted Bessie (Virginia Kull) should be emotionally devastating, but instead comes across as merely melodramatic.

The second act, Cousins, is more successful and strikes a good balance between humor and melancholy as Horace visits his mother Corella (wonderfully portrayed by Annalee Jefferies) in the hospital while also interacting with large numbers of cousins. A recurring gag has the various characters trying to figure out if they're related to one another or to even more unseen individuals. But what makes this segment so strong is Heck's mostly nonverbal performance as you see Horace internalizing all the comments made about him, many of which are not very kind.

In the final act, The Death of Papa, Horace shares the spotlight with Brother Vaughn (Bryce Pinkham) and Horace, Jr. (Dylan Riley Snyder), whose stories intertwine in this tale of change. Horace is once again a man of few words, but Heck nicely showcases the lingering feelings of anger, resentment, failure, and envy that bubble just beneath the surface, until in one powerful moment Horace lashes out in a well-deserved rebuke to his mother. Pinkham also gets to deliver an emotionally-charged speech to his mother (played by the estimable Hallie Foote) and acquits himself nicely. As for Snyder, the child actor goes through the motions but doesn't seem able to bring out the underlying depth of feeling that the part requires, particularly since the character of Horace, Jr. is a stand-in for the playwright as a young boy.

What's clear throughout the evening -- and indeed throughout the entire cycle of plays -- is that the idea of "family" is a source of both joy and pain. There are references to newborn children, long-held feuds, the deaths of loved ones, and opportunities granted to various characters based solely on kinship.

Despite a certain amount of unevennesss in the acting, Michael Wilson's production still brings to vivid life this captivating tale. It is also worth mentioning that it is possible to appreciate this final installment of the Orphans' Home Cycle without having seen the other two parts. But for those who have gone on the journey of all three programs, there is the added reward of seeing how some of the plot threads that have been woven throughout the trilogy come to fruition here.


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