Accents are important to me. I've cringed at Ibsen performed in western Pennsylvania with "Pittsburghese"-tainted vowels. I can aurally spot every mispronounced syllable when a Brit goes Southern belle. I'd rather Shakespeare be done with a standard Midwestern accent than a lousy pseudo-Cockney one (as it often is). So when the Texas twang started to flow at the beginning of the 78th Street Theater Lab's The Horton Foote Project, I braced myself for vocal disappointment. To my delight, the actors displayed a strong command of the sound of the local vernacular—in fact, it was the first of many delights in this moving dream play.
Culled from Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle, this 75-minute work centers on one regular guy (Horace Robedeaux) and his histrionic family. Horace catches the influenza that is sweeping his town and the country in 1918 and fights for his life on the living room couch. During his illness, he has vivid fever dreams of his past: as a child dealing with the separation of his mother and alcoholic father, as a teen bristling under the strictness of his unloving stepfather, and, as an adult, courting his wife and trying to create a stable home for her and their baby daughter.
The best elements of Foote's writing are on display here. The dialogue is colloquial but not pandering, and it's full of surprisingly honest comments about the characters' inner selves and their feelings for others. It is the dialogue, in fact, that draws the audience into the play, keeping a firm, warm grip on them. Although during the first time shift there isn't much in the way of visual or lighting cues to suggest that we are in Horace's flashback, in later episodes there is a subtle shift in the light's intensity, often followed by background noise, to suggest the new location.
Three actors portray Horace and the men and women in his life. As Horace, Stephen Plunkett wears his worn-down kindness on his face as he wearily accepts the flashing of his life before his eyes. Still, there's enjoyment sometimes in those eyes, especially when he relives the day he won his wife. The porch seduction scene, with Amelia McClain playing Horace's sweetheart Elizabeth, is about as perfect as a scene can get. The way that Plunkett and McClain move around each other, sussing out the other's feelings and drawing closer to confirm them, was beautifully staged (by director Wes Grantom) and played out by the actors.
In addition to playing Elizabeth, McClain gave memorable turns as Horace's petulant younger sister Lily Dale, and as the middle-aged Mrs. Coons, a Bible-thumping busybody whom Horace meets on the train to Houston. Chris Grant does a fine job filling out the male roles, most notably as the menacing stepfather Pete Davenport and Sam the gravedigger.
The question posed by The Horton Foote Project is, How can human beings stand all that comes to them? The answer that the show comes up with is, They can stand it with the support of a loving family. As Horace breaks away from his toxic early years and strives to own his own business and his own life, he finds the strength to do so in Elizabeth—just as this production finds its strength in its cast and crew.