Beef or Borscht

Is Horton Foote a modern-day Chekhov or Forrest Gump with a word processor?

Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCRLike last year's Getting Frankie Married—and Afterwards, South Coast Repertory's new Horton Foote undertaking, The Carpetbagger's Children, gives us a Central Texas family characterized by folksy idiosyncrasies and mettle-on-mettle friction. Though it shares the don't-dig-deep sensibilities of Frankie(cursorily explored characters, light-weight ideas), it's a more engaging work.

It's easy to believe that Foote is best loved not for his writing but for his industry—his obsession/mission with chronicling the lives and land of folksy Texas folks is approaching Michenerian volume. And if not his industry, then his longevity (he's 86 and still working) and his past accomplishments (he owns Academy Awards for the screenplays To Kill a Mockingbirdand Tender Mercies). It can't be that the critics love his writing, which, in Frankie, felt like Forrest Gump had discovered the word processor.

The Carpetbagger's Childrenis an affectionate look at the lives of three sisters, daughters of a Union soldier who, during the Civil War, visited a slice of Texas he liked so much that he moved there during Reconstruction. What the women talk about—lost loves, dead siblings, family schisms and reconciliation—is commonplace, but Foote's structure stretches their story across a larger canvas. All three women sit onstage the entire show, relating their stories and perspectives on significant family events in Rashomon-like style. Their stories aren't linear; memories and reflections scatter like buckshot. The effect works. We get nearly 100 years of one family's history in a compact 90 minutes.

Foote makes token efforts to set his chronicle within a larger context. He touches lightly on the tension-filled years of Reconstruction and the impact of modernization on agriculture in the 20th century, but there's no mention of how events like the Great Depression, racism or world wars affected the family. Rather than use his characters as symbol or metaphor, Foote is concerned solely with telling their stories—stories told exceptionally well through Martin Benson's subtle direction and fine performances by Linda Gehringer as Sissie, the youngest, most insecure of the sisters; Nan Martin as Grace Anne, the rebel of the clan; and, most eloquently, Robin Pearson Rose's Cornelia, who inherits the responsibility of running the family farm at the expense of her own life.

Foote doesn't ask Big Questions and he doesn't ponder Big Ideas. Critically speaking, it's tempting to question his passion for his material and his intellectual facility when his writing is so mundane. But there's a flip side: Foote's genius may lie in a subtle but distinct ability to elevate the relatively ordinary and commonplace to the universal—without ever breaking a sweat. That's what Chekhov—a playwright whom many reference when talking about Foote—did so well. And there is a palpable sense of the crushing inevitability of time's passing in The Carpetbagger's Childrenthat echoes the poignancy and compassion of Chekhov. Is Foote a modern-day Chekov? That may depend on whether your drink of choice is Lone Star or Stolichnaya.

The Carpetbagger's Children at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Opens Fri. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Feb. 16. $19-$54.

 
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