Horton Foote boils down Chekhov, and adds black-eyed peas, in The Carpetbagger’s Children, which, in Michael Wilson’s well-shaped and nicely acted production, is enjoying a Hartford Stage encore following a successful Lincoln Center run. The play, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the 2002 American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award, is, like most of the Oscar-winning Foote’s work, a simple, elegiac tale of East Texas. Three sisters, speaking primarily in dovetailed monologues, recount a life lived in the wake of a dominant father. These are the title characters, surviving daughters of a Union Army soldier who liked what he saw while fighting in Texas during the Civil War, returned as a carpetbagger, and prospered by buying up farmland that was dearer to him than his kin.
Like Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, The Carpetbagger’s Children is an elegy for a waning culture, and like his Three Sisters, it acutely acknowledges the passage of time, nodding to deaths in the family, the pull of eternity, the permanence of the land. At the same time, the play is deceptively simple, anecdotal, and sweet, its three indeterminately aged women embodying a family as steeped in Southern peculiarity as in all-American myth. What, after all, is more central to the nation than the rift, still felt in Foote country, between North and South? What more solid, yet shifting and subject to breach, than the family?
Foote, who wrote the films Tender Mercies, The Trip to Bountiful, and To Kill a Mockingbird as well as the Pulitzer-winning The Young Man from Atlanta, has his detractors. They think the 86-year-old writer’s interwoven and less-than-cataclysmic family sagas slight. Count me among those who find the work artful and poignant in its genteel, miniaturist way. And the 90-minute The Carpetbagger’s Children, its Chekhovian echoes wafting across East Texas choir lofts and cotton fields, is particularly so. Cornelia, though not the oldest of the sisters, is the Olga figure, in Roberta Maxwell’s stolid yet graceful evocation the practical one trained by the carpetbagger (after the death of luminous favorite Beth) to mind his holdings. The rebellious — and in Jean Stapleton’s rendering slightly dotty — Grace Anne, who defied her father by eloping with " trifling " Jackson LaGrand (who is never referred to except by his whole name), is Masha. And Hallie Foote’s placid Sissie, the self-avowed " baby of the family, " whose " sweet singin’ voice " is applied to everything from " Marching through Georgia " to " Oh the Clanging Bells of Time, " is Irena without the fervent desire to affect change.
Of course, inevitable change is one of the themes of the piece, as evinced by Cornelia’s story of how, long ago, when Beth was dying, the citizens of little Harrison — Foote’s stand-in for his native Wharton — covered the streets with straw so the noise of the carts would not disturb her. Now, Cornelia notes, all the downtown houses but theirs have been replaced by filling stations, and the traffic is incessant. " What, " she wonders, " would you have to do now to stop the noise? " Or time itself, as represented by the clanging bells of the carpetbagger’s favorite hymn, its tolling refrain of " Eternity, eternity " obtruding ridiculously, yet hauntingly, as the sisters’ unseen, Alzheimer’s-ridden mother requests it every five minutes?
Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson, a University of North Carolina graduate, has a way with Southern writers, particularly Tennessee Williams and the Bard of Wharton. (He helmed the exquisite Glass Menagerie hosted by American Repertory Theatre last summer.) Abetted by Rui Rita’s occasionally sepulchral lighting, he stages The Carpetbagger’s Children in a way that conjures both slamming screen doors and the plays of Beckett. Each sister has her station on the periphery of a round whose center is a table strewn with tea service and oft-addressed photographs. There are just occasional bits of dialogue, but the sisters appear to listen intently to one another.
Maxwell elegantly conveys Cornelia’s authority as well as her heartbreak when con-man suitor Leon Davis (oddly welcomed by the family, despite his having shot his father-in-law while married to a cousin) stood her up. Stapleton supplies the fluttery yet determined Grace Anne with long, low groans that are more expansive than sighs. But Foote, the playwright’s daughter, as cheerful as her yellow dress and with a tremulous soprano to match Sissie’s musical persona, most perfectly embodies Foote’s chatty piquancy. The playwright may lack the mastery, and certainly the rueful cynicism, of Chekhov. But packing comedy and pathos into a particular place, he conveys something of what the Russian master might have penned if he’d spent his life in a Texas porch swing listening.