Aidan Quinn and Kristine Nielsen take radically different approaches to introduce their respective characters in the new Signature Theatre’s production of Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta.” The new revival opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center.
Those first two scenes in Foote’s 1995 play, set in 1950, are a challenge for any actor, crammed as they are with clunky exposition about an affluent Texas couple whose adult son recently drowned in a lake.
Quinn manages to present Will Kidder (a character also seen in Foote’s multiplay saga “The Orphans’ Home Cycle”) as the proud, stolid, self-congratulatory successful businessman that he is, and it’s quite a slog of “remember that” and “let me tell you this” speeches. Nielsen goes a different route. She manages to distract us from the religious, grieving, deluded, self-absorbed housewife Lily Dale Kidder (also from “Home Cycle”) by unleashing every comic mannerism in her considerable arsenal of acting tricks. Amid all the eye-popping and triple takes, Nielsen’s character doesn’t appear until Act 2.
Quinn is being honest. Nielsen is out to entertain. Her approach is the more attention-grabbing, and, considering the poor execution of exposition on Foote’s part, is entirely warranted.
Fortunately, melodrama thrives under capitalism gone amok, and “The Young Man From Atlanta” is ultimately an effective indictment of it. A son is blackmailed, a husband is fired, a wife is bamboozled by a virtual stranger from Atlanta. Money can make an American family go round and round, to paraphrase Kander and Ebb, and it can also bring them down.
Foote isn’t telling a complicated story here, but he takes two long scenes to set it up. Michael Wilson’s direction doesn’t solve the problem, and his lead actors are left to their own very different devices to give us the backstory. When the capitalistic pieces are finally in place, however, Foote’s story engages. We watch as Will asks Lily Dale for money from her own bank account, which has been radically depleted, unbeknownst to Will, forcing Lily Dale to ask her stepfather (the beautifully understated Stephen Payne) for a loan only minutes before Will requests the same thing of his in-law. It’s a very noisy plot, but one that fascinates because of, rather than in spite of, its cheap mechanics.
After all the clanging around in the first act, Foote delivers a sensitive portrait of a severely damaged marriage in the second act, and Wilson’s direction finds the right balance with his two leads. Nielsen’s theatrical dithering coalesces into genuine maternal despair. In a series of scenes, Quinn’s face never stops changing color and his neck appears ready to explode more than once. Money problems have pushed Will to his physical limit, and Quinn’s depiction of that toll is harrowing. This actor would make a great Willy Loman.
Act 2 is also enhanced by the graceful restraint of Pat Bowie. She plays a former domestic who visits the Kidders to offer her condolences and kind memories of their son. (Will and Lily Dare never mention that dead son’s sexual orientation, as fitting for the time.)