Happiness is illusory and joy fleeting, but there’s much melancholy beauty to be found in The Story of a Childhood, the first third of the late Horton Foote’s nine-play Orphans Home Cycle at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company. The three one-acts in Part 1 — Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, and Lily Dale — follow Texas native Horace Robedaux (a stand-in for the playwright’s father) through his very hard-knock life: First, his drunkard dad (Bill Heck) dies, and 12-year-old Horace (Dylan Riley Snyder) is abandoned by his upwardly mobile mom (Virginia Kull). Then, at 14, Horace (Henry Hodges) is shipped off to the plantation of a crazy ex?confederate soldier (James DeMarse) who’s prone to whiskey binges and shooting sprees. Finally, at age 20, he reaches out to — and is again turned away by — his mother (Annalee Jeffries), his spoiled-brat sister (Jenny Dare Paulin), and his inexplicably cruel stepfather (Devon Abner). And this is only the beginning — there are still six more plays to go! Think of it as a more condensed, Southern-set version of August Wilson’s Century Cycle. (Part 2, The Story of a Marriage, begins performances Dec. 3; part 3, The Story of a Family, starts Jan. 7. As of Jan. 12, all three shows will rotate in repertory.)
No one is better equipped than director Michael Wilson to handle the delicate rhythms of this writer’s work. (Wilson’s Hartford Stage debuted the complete Orphans cycle earlier this fall, and counts Foote as one of its most produced playwrights.) He has smartly engaged performers like Abner (who has appeared in nearly a dozen Off Broadway and regional Foote productions), Maggie Lacey (a standout in Foote’s 2009 Best Play Tony nominee Dividing the Estate), and Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter who is widely considered the foremost interpreter of his work. The pace is appropriately, achingly languorous. Anyone not familiar with Foote’s light-on-plot, heavy-on-character storytelling style — if it’s important, it happens off stage, and we hear about it 10 different ways — might find themselves getting anxious. Foote’s particular brand of poetry can seem old-fashioned, even simplistic. But with its tales of harsh times, social and economic change, Reconstruction, education, and industry in small-town America, The Story of a Childhood heralds the beginning of something extraordinary. And you’ll be waiting with baited breath for Foote’s next chapter. Grade: A?
(Tickets: signaturetheatre.org or 212-244-PLAY)