[nyc] YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA (Signature Theatre): Times change

Photo by Monique Carboni

Creak. Creak. Creak.Signature Theatre’s old-fashioned production of Horton Foote’s old-fashioned play, A Young Man From Atlanta is a portrait of 1950. We’re in Houston, Texas where men believed in competition as the key to manly success and  hid truths from themselves to their damage and peril. The style—despite a major cast—might be best described as wooden realism. Directed by Michael Wilson at a tortoise pace—characters wander pointlessly around the stage—this play premiered at Signature in 1995, when it won the Pulitzer Prize. Times change.

Foote is best known for his screenplays, especially the 1962 film, To Kill A Mockingbird, the 1983 Tender Mercies, as well as the often-revived play, The Trip to Bountiful. Like A Young Man from Atlanta, these scripts are filled with slow-talking, Southern folks who labor under and struggle against  doomed cultural assumptions: deferential African-American servants, stay-at-home women and suit-and-tie wearing heads of households, often called “Daddy” by their wives.

Photo by Monique Carboni

In this play, the head-of-household is Will Kidder (played by the often inaudible Aiden Quinn (you may know him as Capt. Gregson in TV’s Elementary).  A man who has built a grocery company from the ground up into a successful business and who is suddenly faced with times changing when he is fired from his job for being behind said times.. (Willie Loman, where are you when we need you?). “I’m a simple man,” he tells us, “a country boy at heart.”

Like many American plays, this one is about the father and son relationship and the high emotional price paid—by both—by refusing to acknowledge the truth of their lives. It is obvious to Will Kidder on some subconscious level that his son was gay, but by denying it, he loses both the person and his own self-esteem.

His wife Lily Dale (Kristine Nielsen—a great comic actress who is wasted in this role; she spends much stage time weeping and, literally, tippy-toeing). Will Kidder will learn to his dismay that she has given away all her money to their dead son’s friend—a young man from Atlanta—who was, obviously but secretly, his lover and a con artist.

Another scamming young man from Atlanta turns up: Carson (Jon Orsini) and claims to be the long-lost nephew of Lily Dale’s stepfather (Stephen Payne). Oh dear, oh dear.

[Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, NYC]  Through Dec.15.

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is a recently retired professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was published by Methuen, and she published the essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.