Horton Foote (1916-2009) was a playwright who could zero in on characters with amazing insight and place them in environments that he knew very well. Thus his works were involving and moving. We see the evidence once again in the Signature Theatre’s revival of “The Young Man from Atlanta,” his 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner.
Director Michael Wilson, with an excellent cast, has skillfully brought to the surface various elements of Foote’s observations. The play is set in Houston, Texas, in 1950, and scenic designer Jeff Cowie has provided the set, mainly the large house of Will Kidder (Aidan Quinn), very successful in the wholesale food business. At least he has been successful until the first act in his office, when he is dismissed by the business owner and suddenly finds his American dream crashing.
We soon meet his wife, Lily Dale, played superbly by Kristine Nielsen with less of the extremes she is known to often shower on characters she portrays. Nielsen is very effective as the wife who is determined to look after her husband, who has been diagnosed with severe heart problems. Will is not the sort to give in, and carries on with bluster after his loss of employment coupled with his heart crisis.
The new situation they face is complicated by a far greater loss. Their son, Bill, has drowned in Florida at the age of 37, and we can see that it was most likely a suicide, a fact that Will and Lily Dale will eventually have to face. There is also the undercurrent that Bill was most likely gay and involved with a roommate, the title character whom we never see.
Little by little pieces from the various lives covered in Foote’s drama emerge through the assembled characters. We meet Lily Dale’s stepfather Pete Davenport (Stephen Payne), and Carson, his great-nephew (Jon Orsini).
There is Lily Dale’s housekeeper Clara (Harriett D. Foy), and entering the picture with a poignant performance is Pat Bowie as Etta Doris, a former housekeeper for Lily Dale, and now older, she wants to be recognized and remembered and has come to pay her respects. The scene is a reminder of times past, and the dignity projected by Etta Doris punctuates the story with a fresh burst of feeling.
What Foote has been slowly cooking up comes to a boil via Lily Dale in a powerful climax. Meanwhile, we have also observed Will attempting to get his life together with the possibility of going back to his old firm in another capacity. By the final curtain, so much has been revealed about the lives of all concerned, and what has been kept under wraps is bubbling to the surface even though not thoroughly stated. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed December 8, 2019.