The Carpetbagger’s Children
By Horton Foote
Directed by Jack Sbarboni
Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
‘Carpetbagger’ – we’ve all heard the term, learned about it in grade school history lessons of the Civil War. It doesn’t have a particularly kind connotation, and in the current quiet production at the Writer’s Center, it is bandied about constantly to describe, place, and define a social construct for the Thompson family, set in Harrison, Texas. In a series of monologs, three sisters share their experiences, reveal family secrets, and generally putter along relating pivotal events from their point of view.
Ostensibly set in the 1940’s following WWII, the historical roots are as deep as slavery. The play is described as having “echoes of The Three Sisters and King Lear” in tackling the big ticket themes of duty, honor, and patriarchy, in a regal style and approach-admittedly, one person’s “regal” is another’s “stilted” it’s all P.O.V.
Each sister has an intriguing story to tell and all three actresses dig deep into each character for full, honest portrayals. Leah Mazade starts off as Cornelia, the dependable one who the father eventually depends on to run the massive family estate. Mazade exudes a comfortable yet no-nonsense approach to her character, perched comfortably upstage at an old wooden desk, attending to the constant paperwork. Mazade has the most complete dramatic journey of the play since she starts off in one frame of mind and then deepens into maturity as her father thrusts her into the executive position, and she rises to the occasion.
Barbara Scheide plays Grace Ann, who’s defiant act of eloping ruptured her standing in the family, creating an irreparable rift between her and her father that extended to his dying day. Scheide, too, has incorporated every aspect of her character into her being-she is weary yet wary with furtive motions, and quiet determination in a constant state of mild defensiveness. Both of these performances are quite remarkable to witness.
And finally, Stephanie Mumford plays Sissie, the remaining baby of the family with all flutter and frail sweetness, who comforts everyone with her childlike performance of “O, the clanging bells of time, Night and day they never cease… Eternity! Eternity.” Only Mumford could get away with the seemingly endless sing-song renditions of that blasted verse.
While the women recall their own significant life stages, each reflects on their dear father and mother, including their own individual and unique approach to his background as a Union soldier and dubious role in amassing the family fortune. He was just doing his job as County Treasurer and Tax Collector, right? What was so wrong with being in the right place at the right time and savvy enough to benefit from the misfortune and bankruptcy of the confederate farmers whose defeated spirits were matched only by their worthless currency?
The play doesn’t define the term, carpetbagger, but reflects how the word resonated in each of the family member’s lives. The sisters felt the derogatory connotation as children finding and losing friends, hearing the whispers about being “the carpetbagger’s children.” No amount of money washed away the stain completely – there was always some aspect of feeling like an interloper that the family wore like a badge of honor. Using the stories, Foote creates a misty atmosphere of family recollections and secrets, some that remained tucked away for years before being released by the slip of a tongue or a sudden reflection.
Having the women on stage at all times helped maintain an unusual energy so that even though the focus was always on one, the others remained attentive, alert, and engaged. The set design by director Jack Sbarboni, was quite mesmerizing with each sister occupying her own specifically designed area, with distinctly designed wall paper, flowers, artifacts, and paraphernalia to remarkable net effect, a further reflection that the Sbarboni knows these characters inside out.
The play has an undefeatable air of survival. Through hardships, death, and disappointment, the characters get right back up and keep living no matter what.
Cornelia sure has her share of travail, personally and as family executer. When she describes the hurt of having to let go farm hands who have been with the family for most of their lives, it’s a reflection of a new era with society crossing into mechanized labor and equipment. Whether it was the harvesting tractors in 1930’s Texas, or typewriters for office workers in the ‘60’s, or computers, or digital this or that, there are residual societal effects, shown very touchingly in this production.
The Carpetbagger’s Children, Horton Foote’s latest play, was performed at Lincoln Center in 2002 with Maureen Stapleton playing the mild songbird character Sissie, and won the American Theatre Critics Best New Play Award. You’d think that the slow pace would be like watching paint dry. Admittedly, I’m not sure why Foote elected to deaden some passages with buckets of “He said, then I said” refrains instead of dramatizing the scenes. Still, I was surprised by how comfortably I settled into the gentle rhythm of the language, like kicking back in Grandma’s favorite rocking chair enjoying the scenes. The Carpetbagger’s Children explores the bonds of love and trust within a family– flowers, warts and all.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Where: Quotidian Theatre Company at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD
When: Thru November 18th. Friday and Saturday 8pm, Sunday matinee 2:00 pm.
Info: call (301) 816-1023 or consult the website.