THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA

A quote in Stone Soup Theatre’s program for their current production, The Young Man from Atlanta, calls playwright Horton Foote “the great American voice.”  I admit that I am no Foote expert, but judging from this play, which is often lauded as his masterwork, I have to ask, “whose voice?”

The Young Man from Atlanta is a thematically complex piece of realistic drama set in the 1950s (though it was written in the 1990s).  It focuses on a few days in the life of Will Kidder, an aging Texan businessman, and his wife, Lily Dale.  Not too long ago, their grown son drowned in a Florida lake.  Was his death accidental or was it a suicide?  Given all of the conflicting reports, they can never know for sure.  The pain and frustration of their loss simmers just beneath the surface throughout the play. 

At the start of Young Man, we see Will get fired from his high-paying job of 40 years with a produce company.  Will’s boss, the son of the company’s deceased founder, explains to him that times have changed and younger men are just more aware of today’s business practices. In the ensuing scenes Will falls into a pattern of blaming everyone under 40 for his (and it feels, by extension, the world’s) problems, never the system that has pushed him out.  But honestly Will has little reason to point a shaming finger at the powers-that-be. He and his wife live in a brand new, newly furnished house with a servant who cooks and cleans for them.  Upon being fired, Will tries to go into business for himself, but he is short of start-up money.  He frets that his wife frittered away $50, 000 of her $75,000 savings while their son, before he died, frittered away all of his $100, 000.  His step-father-in-law, also to Will’s frustration, can only loan him $10, 000.  According to Consumer Price Index conversion factors, $1,000 in 1953 would be worth between $7,000 and $8,000 today.  I think we can safely assume that the Kidder’s are millionaires.

In the leading role of Will Kidder, seasoned actor Gordon Coffey is excellent. His deep, rich voice fills the small space of Stone Soup’s Theatre, transformed for this play into an affluent living room done in the color of money—pale green walls, velvet green drapes, green floral furniture—by Scenic Designer Suzi Tucker.  Maggie Heffernan as Lily Dale also does well in her difficult role.  Michael Way is quite loveable as Lily’s step-father, Pete, and Maria Knox is very graceful in her role as Clara, the Kidders’ warm-hearted housekeeper.  It is an actor that comes in near the end of the play, however, that may steal the show…

Eva Abram plays Etta Doris, the Kidders’ former housekeeper who has come by to wish them the best in their new home.  Like Will, she has health problems.  Unlike Will, she has bussed and walked blocks to reach the Kidder home, and when she arrives, Will barely recognizes her and asks her a bit too quickly to leave.  Abram’s performance is very dignified, subtle and deliberate; when she is on stage, you do not want to look anywhere else.  Matthew Gilbert as Carson, Pete’s young nephew who has been living in a boarding house while trying to find work—you know, the exact kind of person that seems to be ruining Will’s life—gives a strong performance as well.  In fact, all of the actors do and this is quite a feat.  My only concerns are a few frustrating instances in which the actors kept their backs’ to the audience.  Yes, the “no backs to the audience rule” is rather outdated, but in a space this compact, it is one that may well be heeded.

What were Foote’s intentions in writing this play?  I do not know.  Part of me wonders if this is a bit of a send-up of Death of a Salesman.  The protagonists in both plays are aging businessmen who have lost their jobs; they even have the same first name.  Is Will Kidder what Willy Loman would have become if he had done better in sales, a man whose heart palpitates when he imagines firing his housekeeper or forgoing a new car?    

Granted, this play won a Pulitzer when it premiered in 1995.  Staging it then probably made sense, as  times were good for many, and it also would have made a lot of sense in the golden age of the 1950s, the time in which the play was set.  But doing The Young Man from Atlanta in 2012 is something else altogether.  At best, it’s absurd; at worst, it’s offensive.  To say, as Stone Soup’s Artistic Director Maureen Miko does in her program note, that the play is “[the] story of an American family not so different from any of us,” is a slap in the face to countless.

The Young Man From Atlanta.  By Horton Foote.  Directed by Maureen Hawkins.   Stone Soup Theatre at  The DownStage Theatre, 4029 Stone Way N., Seattle. February 17 – March 10 .  Tickets and information at www.stonesouptheatre.com, 206-633-1883, or www.brownpapertickets.com, 800-838-3006.

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