Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, May 11, 2001

Jill Esser, front, Richard Pellett, left, and
Jim Hutchison read from "The Young Man From
Atlanta" at Richardson Theatre at Fort Shafter.

Pulitzer prices

By Scott Vogel

Sad to say, the Pulitzer Prize for drama is not a reliable predictor of theatrical excellence. For every "Death of a Salesman" (a winner in 1949) and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1957), there's a play like "The Shrike" (1952) or "The Old Maid" (1935) that no one seems to remember. (On the other hand, "Proof," which just won the 2001 Pulitzer, will not likely sink into obscurity. In fact, with any luck at all, some enterprising Hawaii theater company is at this very moment making plans for a local production of David Auburn's drama.)

The jury is still out on "The Young Man from Atlanta," Horton Foote's 1995 Pulitzer winner that Army Community Theatre is putting on as part of its Matinee Readers series, beginning this Sunday. Foote's work includes an Oscar-winning adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and numerous noteworthy plays set in the fictional Texas town of Harrison, but the critical reputation of "Atlanta" is -- shall we say -- far from assured. Vanita Rae Smith, the Army director, puts it a bit more bluntly.

"You know, I can't believe it's a Pulitzer prize-winning play," she said with a laugh. "I think they gave it to him because they owed him one."

Well, there are worse reasons to give a play an award, and Foote's drama is nevertheless an intriguing work, notwithstanding a number of ponderous passages. Set in 1950, Will and Lily Dale Kidder (Jim Hutchison and Jill Esser) are a long-time married couple whose lives have been ripped apart by the mysterious death of their son, Bill. Before the action of the play begins, Bill wades into the ocean over his head -- a rather uncharacteristic act for a nonswimmer -- and drowns. All the evidence points to suicide, but, this being 1950, such subjects as suicide cannot even be discussed. Even more unmentionable is the cause of the suicide, an act so utterly taboo to postwar America that some (admittedly obtuse) theatergoers might miss it.

"There's a beautiful dancing around the issues, but an unspoken knowledge comes through, and we know what's going on," said Smith. "We suspect very early on that (Bill) is gay, but it's not spoken, and in that period in America it wasn't spoken."

Of course, dangerous silences and unspoken truths are a staple of great postwar drama, and indeed drama in general. The tension of the script, here as elsewhere, comes from the powerful ability of the protagonists to deny reality even as it inches closer and closer to their door. But denial is not only a seductive option for characters in a play. Even such enlightened souls as Smith long for a less blatant world from time to time.

"There's no mystique anymore," she lamented, her mind beginning to free-associate on the subject of contemporary lewdness. " 'You want boxers or briefs?,' they ask. Well, hell, we used to blush at the word 'underwear.' "

All of Smith's upbringing, one imagines, prepared her not a jot for Bob Dole selling pharmaceuticals in between nightly news segments. "I mean, Viagra commercials on television? I can still remember the first time I saw a brassiere commercial! But you get over it in a hurry in America."

Unless of course you're the (aptly named) Kidders, who spend most of "Atlanta" in their shiny new home kidding themselves that creature comforts can substitute for an authentic existence. This leaves them vulnerable to the charms of that eponymous young man from Atlanta, whose former relationship with her dead son leads Lily Dale to fork over 50 grand to an undeniably shady character. Will too turns out to be vulnerable, as the job which made him a fortune is snatched out from under him and his body begins to give way (yup, heart attack) under all the pressure.

It's an uneasy brew composed of much hand-wringing and a torrent of thinly disguised exposition. In spite of that, however, the play has proved intoxicating before in the right hands. Great actors like Rip Torn and Shirley Knight starred in the Broadway production a few years back, and Torn was a towering figure whose stature made Will's tragic fall all the more terrifying. Like many plays lost in Pulitzer's past, it seems, "The Young Man from Atlanta" demands nothing less than a stellar, first-rate cast.

Something that's arguably even more critical in a parlor theater production like the Army's.

"The Young Man from Atlanta"

Showtime: 2 p.m. Sunday, May 20 and 27
Place: Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter
Cost: $6
Call: 438-4480

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