Horton Foote's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Young Man from Atlanta, is lovingly brought to life again by Signature Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center. Directed with respectful humor by Michael Wilson, the play immerses us in the quietly desperate lives of Will and Lily Dale Kidder (Aidan Quinn and Kristine Nielsen) of 1950 Houston Texas. Six months ago the Kidder's only son, Bill, walked into a lake and drowned. Will accepts that his son committed suicide but Lily Dale wants to believe it was an accident. On top of this tragedy Will was just fired from the company he built and dedicated 25 years to. A proud man Will refuses the three months notice Southern Wholesale Grocery gives him, even though he recently spent all their savings building a gorgeous modern home to help his wife and himself get over the death of their son.
Bill was living in Atlanta when he died. We learn that his roommate, Randy, (never appears in the play), came to Houston for the funeral and made fast friends with Bill's mother, Lily Dale, against Will's instructions. Lily Dale is comforted by Randy and the affection he had for her son. Will doesn't trust him.
All except the opening scene of the play takes place in the pastel living room of the Kidder's new home. Their life is typically mid-century American. So typical that the Kidders don't want to know that their son was homosexual. The love that dare not speak its name, is never spoken, never named by the couple. As Will explains to Lily Dale, “...there are things I'd have to ask him (Randy) and I don't want to know...There was a Bill I knew and a Bill you knew and that's the only Bill I care to know about.” Lily Dale doesn't want to know either. She doesn't want to know that her son was gay, or that he committed suicide, and in a funny aside, but actually pertinent point of the play, she also doesn't want to know that her step-father (who she adores) molested her cousins. She confesses to Will that she never believed her cousins. In response to all of the confusions and disappointments Lily Dale finds in people she loves she asks, “Who are we to believe, Daddy?”
The Young Man from Atlanta is ingeniously written. It is old fashioned in style and characterization and that is perfect. It lets us into private moments with a couple that are unaware of their political positions in life. They have never examined why they think what they think, or do what they do. They just do what they have been taught should be done; there is no gay rights movement, no #MeToo or women's movement. Aidan Quinn and Kristine Nielsen are touching and hilarious. The sincerity that Nielsen brings to Lily Dale's child-like wife makes it impossible for us to laugh at her. We sympathize with her confusion and innocence. Quinn moves from macho to vulnerable with grace, and like Nielsen, a sincerity that commands that we respect Will. There are silent moments of Quinn's that are worthy of a silent movie. A wonderful evening of old fashioned theater that does not feel old fashioned, just honest and funny.
(Photo by Monique Carboni)
"An affectionate, slow and steady revival by Michael Wilson for the Signature Theater... In the second act... as that stealthy Horton Foote magic asserts itself anew. The revelations of plot make way for the bigger revelation that the complacent, well-heeled Will and Lily Dale are defenseless against life’s universal solitude. The emotional floodgates collapse, and each has a devastating, fully earned moment of breakdown and release."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Go-to Foote director Michael Wilson, who helmed 2007’s superb Dividing the Estate and 2009’s nine-play masterwork the Orphans’ Home Cycle, at least gives this head-scratcher of a play a handsome production at the Signature, with a couple of inspired touches."
Melissa Rose Bernardo for Time Out New York
"Fortunately, melodrama thrives under capitalism gone amok, and “The Young Man From Atlanta” is ultimately an effective indictment of it."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap