Horton Foote’s 1995 play The Young Man From Atlanta, set in 1950, is playing Off Broadway at Pershing Square Signature Center. Aidan Quinn and Kristine Nielsen are at the helm of this melodrama, that seems more like a soap opera. It is hard to believe that this play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Deep in the heart of Texas, Will Kidder (Quinn ), now 64, has worked for the Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery, since his early 20s. He and his wife Lily Dale (Nielsen) have just moved into their new house in Houston. Poor as a child, Will wants only the best of everything and, in Will’s words, “There’s no finer house in Houston.” When Will is fired he looses his sense of self.
Will’s only son, Bill, who moved to Atlanta and “drowned” six months ago. Will suspects Bill has committed suicide, but Lily Dale believes that his death was an accident. Almost as soon as we hear about Bill and Bill’s roommate, Randy Carter, from a boarding house in Atlanta, who wants to see Will, we know Bill was gay and most likely had AIDS. Bill has given Randy $100,000.00, why? Then when Will needs to borrow money from his wife, he learns that behind his back, she has not only been seeing Randy, but has given him around $75,000. Why did he need so much money? Even when the couple faces the reality of this situation, they only care to know about the Bill they knew, not the person he was.
Lily Dale at one point asks her stepfather (the layered and subtle Stephen Payne) who is staying with them for a loan, to keep the secret, but then Will requests the same loan, forcing the truth about Lily Dale’s betrayal out into the open.
Money problems push Will to his physical limits, as Lily Dale tries to navigate and justify having servants. Obsessed with the origins of “Disappointment Clubs” or “Eleanor Clubs,” Lily Dale seeks to find the truth that Eleanor Roosevelt plotted to disrupt the lives of Southern whites by encouraging black domestics not to show up for work. When a former domestic (the lovely Pat Bowie) visits to offer her condolences and remembers Will with kindness, Lilly also seeks answers to her privileged dilemma.
There is so much that goes unspoken. The Young Man From Atlanta shows the lengths people will go in order to hear what they want to hear. Was Will blackmailed and Lilly Dale taken in by a virtual stranger from Atlanta? This play offers more questions than answers.
Quinn performance is honest, real and solid. You can see him playing Willy Loman in Death of A Salesman. He is a dying bread who no longer sees his place in this world. Nielsen’s performance is a little over the top, making the two seem in different plays at times. Lilly Dale is religious, grieving, deluded and when she cries over her severely damaged marriage and son, the devastation hits home. Also in this cast is Jon Orsini as Pete’s great nephew, who knew Bill and Randy in Atlanta. His performance and role in the play tries to add to the mystery of what was really going on in this boarding house, but instead seems convoluted.
Michael Wilson’s direction hasn’t quite shown this as anything, but an out of date play. The Young Man from Atlanta feels mechanical and over written, without really addressing issues or revealing much.
I can see how twenty-five years ago, The Young Man from Atlanta showed a family on the verge of being replaced with the liberal agenda’s when in a Republican state of mind, could have been eye opening, but we’ve been there done that.
The Young Man from Atlanta: Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd St. until Dec. 15th.