Aidan Quinn Photo: Monique Carbon
Young Man From Atlanta
Many in the post-WWII years enjoyed a booming American
economy. Business was brisk, the stock market soared and returning veterans
were the recipients of unprecedented prosperity.
The Kidder family is no exception. It’s 1950, and Will
Kidder (Aiden Quinn) is a successful salesman, employed for nearly 40 years by
the Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery. Will is cast in the American booster
tradition; he believes hard work and a competitive spirit will carry the day.
His wife, Lily Dale Kidder (Kristine Nielsen), has lived
a privileged life in Houston, thanks to her husband’s work ethic. But behind
the curtains of their expensive new home (“the biggest and the best”), lay
sadness, despair and anger.
Will and Lily Dale, who have appeared in earlier Horton
Foote plays, reappear in the revival of Young Man From Atlanta, now at
the Signature Theater Center. And it isn’t a happy reunion. Foote explores the
dark side of the American Dream, as well as the lies we tell ourselves in order
Times are changing, and 61-year-old Will has not kept
pace. He’s forced to reckon with the boss’ son Ted (Devon Abner), eager to
promote younger men like Tom (Dan Bittner), Will’s protégé. That’s a bitter
blow to Will who needs to work, even if his colleagues wish for his retirement.
The generation gap — and the cruelty of ending someone’s
career prematurely — is heartbreaking to watch. Experience and loyalty are not
valued commodities. The fruit company would rather show Bill the door than
teach him to adapt. Here, youth and technical expertise are championed over all
As if that isn’t insult enough, Will and his semi-ditzy
wife contend with a private tragedy: the death of their 37-year-old Bill. (She
has a wacky theory that Mrs. Roosevelt organized Houston’s maids into a club to
disappoint their white employers.) And here’s where Young Man From Atlanta
careens into murkier terrain. Six months ago, their son Bill walked into the
ocean and drowned.
His suicide is apparent to all — except his mother. So
she turns to Randy, the unseen man of the play’s title, for solace.
Randy was Bill’s roommate in their Atlanta boarding
house — and despite subtle hints, their relationship is never
explicitly stated. What we do learn is that Lily Dale finds the young man a
comfort, while Will sees him as a con artist and parasite. The big issue is
money, which Randy needs and Lily has. Will needs it, too — which ups his
exasperation at discovering his wife’s profligate attitude toward a stranger as
he endures a life of not-so-quiet desperation.
But the real stranger is within. Did the Kidders ever
know their son? Do they know each other? Do they understand the world they
Aidan Quinn, Kristine Nielsen
and Stephen Payne Photo by Monique Carboni
used fictional Harrison, Texas — and neighboring Houston — as a metaphor for
the world at large. He employs the Kidders and their extended friends,
colleagues and family to explore larger themes of identity, ageism, privilege
and grief. Clara, the Kidder’s longtime housekeeper (Harriet D. Foy), has a
practical kindness; Ted can only muster inchoate stabs at understanding.
plays Will for all he’s worth, with brutal honesty. He’s an angry, blustering
man, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for anyone who loses control of his
life. Nielsen, often cast in comedic turns, utilizes the same facial tics in
all her roles to indicate disbelief or confusion. It may be humorous the first
time, but it wears thin. Her mood swings are as frequent as her eye rolls.
her gullible character, a mother longing to be reassured despite the facts,
rings true. So does Lily Dale’s insensitivity to others, noted in a brief scene
with an elderly former maid. The ensemble cast is sound, and Michael Wilson’s
direction is smooth. Foote is a subtle, understated playwright not known for
his poetic dialogue. But he is adept at capturing ordinary people facing
difficult moments with authenticity.
The Young Man From Atlanta,
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42 St., through Dec. 15.
Running time: 125 minutes