The love that dare not speak its name remains conspicuously unspoken in Horton Foote’s 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta, at long last getting its splendid Los Angeles Premiere, directed by August Viverito for the multi-award winning The Production Company.

Set at the very beginning of the decade now referred to as the Eisenhower Fifties (though in fact Harry Truman was still President during its spring 1950 timeframe), The Young Man From Atlanta paints the portrait of a family we’d probably now call dysfunctional, though to hear Houston businessman Will Kidder (Dick DeCoit) tell it, he and wife Lily Dale (Eileen Barnett) are living the American Dream “in the best country in the world.” “I live in the best city,” a proud-as-a-peacock Will tells his young colleague Tom Jackson (Geoff James). “I have the finest wife a man could have, work for the best wholesale produce company…”

Until not ago Will would have added, “I have the best son a father could ask for.” That was until the hot Atlanta day that thirty-seven-year-old Bill Kidder went for a swim and drowned, leaving Will and Lily Dale with an emptiness in their lives and a question neither of them can answer—why a man who could not swim would walk out into a lake and “just keep walking until he was out of sight.” To his credit, Will does admit the obvious—that Bill took his own life. Lily Dale, on the other hand, continues to maintain that “it was a hot day” and “that’s why he went for a swim,” and will tolerate no contradiction, finding consolation in her religious faith. “She reads the Bible constantly,” Will tells Tom, and does so to the exclusion of everything else in her life, including the music that used to enrich it.

All this is back story, however, to the event that sets The Young Man From Atlanta’s plot in motion. Will’s boss Ted Cleveland, Jr. (Jonathan Strait) arrives in Will’s office to inform him that the produce company which the 64-year-old has worked for since his early twenties has recently lost three of its largest accounts, and that he is giving Will “three months notice,” news which hits the old-timer like a sucker punch, Will having recently sunk every cent of his savings into building Lily Dale the finest house in Houston.

As if this news weren’t bad enough, there’s also the matter of Bill’s bereaved roommate Randy, the titular Young Man From Atlanta, who has called yet again today, this time from the local YMCA, and though Will has absolutely no interest in hearing what the young man has to say, Lily Dale is another matter entirely.

Today’s audiences would likely put quotation marks around “roommate,” but Will and Lily Dale live at the cusp of the 1950s, a time when a gay man was simply a “confirmed bachelor,” another term used without a hint of irony, whether through ignorance, naïveté, or simply an unwillingness to face the obvious.

We soon learn that Lily Dale has gone so far as to talk to and even meet Randy on a regular basis, and that she has been giving him considerable sums of money from her savings for his supposedly in-need family. Not surprisingly, this is information Lily Dale has seen no need to reveal to Will, that is until her hand is forced by his decision to start his own company. Will will, he informs her, need all of the $75,000 he’s given the Missus in $5000 Christmas gifts over the past fifteen years, that and another $35,000 from Lily Dale’s elderly stepfather Pete (Hap Lawrence), who has unbeknownst to Will promised them to his stepdaughter to make up for the money she gave to Randy.

Can you say one hot mess?

Few have written more incisively about America’s heartland than Horton Foote, whose other plays and films include The Trip To Bountiful, Tender Mercies, and The Habitation Of Dragons. The truths revealed in The Young Man From Atlanta are not always spoken, but a number of them are there to be seen right before our eyes. At the same time, Will and Lily Dale’s deliberate decision to look the other way may well be their only means of survival.

Even for a contemporary theatergoer able to read between the lines, there is much in The Young Man From Atlanta that Foote keeps us guessing about. Pete’s great nephew Carson (David Robert May), another young man from Atlanta, tells a very different story from Randy’s, leading us to wonder not just about Bill’s reasons for taking that fatal swim, but also about what kind of man the unseen Randy is, a question whose answer depends on whether we believe Carson or consider him a bold-faced liar.

Viverito directs all this secrecy, mystery, and intrigue with a sure hand, aided by an absolutely first-rate cast headed by an excellent DeCoit, whose Will is a bundle of nervous energy and bravado used to mask the fear and uncertainty brought about by his son’s death and his own poor health and financial insecurity. Musical theatre star Barnett does revelatory work, vanishing into Lily Dale’s Texas skin. Resisting the temptation to play Lily Dale as a dithering ninny, the fabulous Barnett gives her spunk and grit and heart, making the Houston housewife seem at times downright heroic.

The pair are supported by an all-around terrific ensemble. Lawrence makes for a quirky, folksy Pete, and James and Straight do solid work as men for whom business may come first but not completely at the expense of their humanity. Nicole J. Butler is a feisty, sympathetic Kidder family maid Clara, and Cyndi Martino does a sweet, touching turn as Etta Doris, one of Clara’s predecessors, come to offer words of friendship and consolation. Finally, The ProdCo regular May brings a sly, sexy electricity to Carson, the only character who knows the truth about Bill and his “young man” from Atlanta. As to whether we can believe him or not, May plays him with just enough mystery (or is it caginess?) to leave us wondering.

Bryan Forrest’s beautifully rendered 1950 Atlanta living room (he did the excellent props as well) is the kind of set that could never have fit onto The ProdCo’s former matchbox-sized North Hollywood stage, making the move to Hollywood’s Lex Theatre all the more welcome and gratifying. Ric Zimmerman’s lighting is, as always, highly effective, the play’s first scene (in Will’s office) suggested only by Zimmerman’s design. Shon LeBlanc’s costumes are (with the exception of Lily Dale’s too short hemlines) period perfect treats. Meggan Amos is assistant set designer and Margaret Dwyer stage manager. The Young Man is produced by Virerito and T L Kolman.

The Young Man From Atlanta paints an often fascinating picture of mid-20th Century America, or at least mid-20th Century upper middle class Texas, as seen through a mid-1990s lens. In Will and Lily Dale Kidder, Foote shows us the damage caused by secrets and lies, and that while ignorance may at times equal bliss, deliberate ignorance can lead to dysfunction. Though perhaps not as great a play as its Pulitzer Prize would indicate, The Young Man From Atlanta is nonetheless a fine one, and as staged by The Production Company, one well worth seeing.

The Production Company at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
April 1, 2011
Photos: Jonathan Vandiveer, Vandiveer Photography

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