The past and present don’t collide in Harrison, Texas so much as they come to an uneasy truce. In the early years of Reconstruction, when townsfolk feared and distrusted the southern migration of Union families, the challenge to overcome the recent past was steep indeed. A few decades later, swept up in the industrial boom of another, bigger war, the tenant farmers in agricultural towns like Harrison began to fear that the values of their small-town present were slipping into the past.
How to maintain that warm, rustic routine when cold apprehension sets in and we see, in flashes, how fleeting life can be?
The Carpetbagger’s Children steps into a time of American flux and, under the august pen of Horton Foote, explores the lives of three sisters who survive, with sad dignity, in a gilded cage of financial prosperity built by their Union army-man father. Mark Ramont’s pensive, understated production of Foote’s 2001 play has the good sense to spotlight the storytelling talents of Nancy Robinette, Kimberley Schraf, and Holly Twyford without pretense or theatrical varnish, offering up a quietly compelling piece of living American portraiture.
By the time Foote passed away in 2009, he’d been writing plays for seventy years. Even in his earliest work, in the early 1940s, the impact of his upbringing in rural Texas clearly endowed his characters with genuine soul and grounded them in a familiar world — what would soon become the fictional town of Harrison (Foote would go on to write The Orphan’s Home Cycle and Young Man From Atlanta, which won the Pulitzer in 1995). As one of Foote’s final plays, however, The Carpetbagger’s Children more overtly imparts a sense of loneliness and loss.
While watching, we sink into the quaint homespun comforts of yesteryear. The wisps of folk music we hear throughout — coupled with Robin Stapley’s serene sunset backdrop and Helen Huang’s period costuming — is all pleasant, digestible, and familiar. But after we’ve left the theatre, the imprint that remains is of a more haunted gallery, a series of mortal moments fueled by a desperate need to remember and stay rooted.
Each sister has her own means of attempting a life that’s both safe and true to herself. Grace Anne (played with vivacity by Robinette, who is always worth a show of her own) opts for love, eloping with a man of little means and irreparably wounding her relationship with her father. The coolheaded Cornelia (Schraf) stays far more faithful to the family order, trusting in her critical wit and her unflagging sense of responsibility to keep hold of the rudder and get her sisters through. As the self-professed baby of the family, Sissie (Twyford) falls perpetually back on simple domestic pleasures to stay afloat, and her playful, grinning humor adds a welcome bounce and liveliness to her scenes.
The sisters share much — a home and a bloodline, sure, but also a staging with almost no entrances and exits. All three are present as they patch together this chronicle of their past. Yet in many ways they remain isolated from each other. It’s nearly an hour into the show before two characters exchange a line of dialogue, and even then it’s only momentary. Foote wrote The Carpetbagger’s Children as a series of monologues that don’t so much interlock as slip past each other. Some stories are started twice – by different sisters — as if one had been out of the room while the other was relating the details to us.
They’re not forgetful people or bad listeners. They’re just members of a world too big to keep track of them. Grover’s Corners this isn’t — these personal annals of weddings, deaths, and funerals are composed alone. But, through it all, the love is palpable. Just as old photographs of relatives long gone can seem to have personalities of their own, the three sister’s silent, shifting portraits capture agreement, regret, and deep love.
Like a hall of mirrors, their parallel problems reflect back on each other. But they depend on each other’s strength, islanded as they are by the prejudices of their fellow townsfolk and the strict caution practiced by their own parents. And their dedication to each other through their confusing modern reality gives the play its lasting power. It’s a poignant exhibit, excavating our collective solitude and still managing, somehow, to raise our hopes.
The Carpetbagger’s Children
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Mark Ramont
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 95 minutes without intermission
THE CARPETBAGGER’S CHILDREN