Finding the universal in the particular

Sometimes, life hands you a sweet surprise. Profile Theatre’s low-profile production of The Young Man From Atlanta is one of these.

Sometimes, life hands you a sweet surprise. Profile Theatre’s low-profile production of The Young Man From Atlanta is one of these.

The theatre’s selections have been interesting—last season it chose Neil Simon, the man behind most of our musical theater zeitgeist, and this season it has chosen to profile Horton Foote. The decision is something of a tribute, as Foote died last March, but Foote was a powerful American playwright who commands an audience no matter the timing.

Foote was a contemporary playwright, well-appreciated for his dedicated exploration of what it means to be a human in our time and country. Popular and expert works include his screenplay adaptations of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. His plays may be less pop-culturally prevalent but are no less outstanding, and The Young Man From Atlanta—a later work—won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Here in Portland, it is well performed under the guidance of director Pat Patton. Will (Tobias Anderson) and Lilly Dale Kidder (JoAnn Johnson) are a married couple approaching retirement age. They have recently lost their only son, probably to a suicidal drowning, and their attempt to cope—together and separately—is the major thread in this play.

In the opening scene, Will is fired from the Houston produce company he’s worked with for 38 years. They need younger men, they tell him, and business is different these days. In this scene, the audience is also introduced to the young man from Atlanta. Randy Carter is an offstage character that lived in an Atlanta boarding house with Will and Lilly Dale’s now-deceased son. Randy claims to have had a very close relationship with their son and frequently contacts the Kidders by phone, by post and in person in an effort to connect.

What does Randy want? Will believes it’s money, and Randy has indeed milked Lilly Dale for tens of thousands of dollars—unbeknownst to Will. Lilly Dale, exhausted by grief and confusion and terrified to acknowledge the possibility of her son’s suicide, happily gave her savings away to Randy. In exchange, he comforted her and assured her that his very dear friend, her only son, was a spiritual man, a Christian man, and that he would never have killed himself. Randy assured Lilly Dale that her son had been happy.

Everything comes to a head when Will is fired. Guarding his pride, Will refuses his three months’ notice and leaves immediately, intent on starting his own business. When the banks won’t lend him the capital he needs to start, he turns to his own assets—and Lilly Dale’s. Because more than half of her known savings is gone, Lilly Dale has to confess to her frequent contact with Randy Carter. This enrages her husband, prompts a heart attack, and furthers the wedge between them.

Tobias Anderson is excellent as Will Kidder. He is absolutely believable and compelling throughout, though he does lack a convincing (or consistent) Texan accent. JoAnn Johnson also shines as Lilly Dale Kidder, certainly a difficult character to portray. The supporting cast is talented and enthusiastic.

Scenic designer Mina Kinukawa has done an incredible job, creating the dollhouse living room set of a television family comedy and displaying it easily and intimately in a very small theater. Costume designer DeeDee Remington also deserves a nod for her male characters’ perfectly tailored suits and her female characters’ smart dresses.

In a very Faulknerian tradition, Horton Foote settled on the fictional town of Harrison, Texas as the setting for his 40+ plays, often revisiting characters and chance happenings. On his classification as a regionalist, Foote wrote, “What you try to find is the universal in the particular. That’s the search.”

In the particulars of a married couple losing their son, their livelihood, and their sense of emotional security, there is much to find about what it means to operate as a human being in this world. This is a play about family, about secrets and about healing. With a wonderful cast and crew, it’s not to be missed.