Too many American playwrights hit a gusher or two, and then go dry. Horton Foote, 72, keeps producing.
Perhaps it’s because he knows his scene so well--a little town that he calls Harrison, Tex. It’s the setting of his newest and biggest play, “The Habitation of Dragons,” which opened Wednesday at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
It is a three-hour study of two feuding brothers. The year is 1935. George and Leonard Tolliver have a serious falling out over the family farm and the family law firm. The results include all the things that nice people in Harrison aren’t supposed to discuss over the dinner table--sex, politics and death.
The mix impressed the Pittsburgh critics, but also struck them as a bit too rich. Wrote George Anderson, of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
“We recognize the accuracy of Foote’s observations of human behavior and his insight into the human heart. His (characters) are gentle and full of decency, yet they have a dark side that drives them and vibrates through all the action.”
But the play also impressed Anderson as overly weighty, with 19 characters to keep track of. “It’s a demanding piece, a bold but still elusive drama that commands attention and deserves further work. I think it would make an outstanding film.”
Ed Blank of the Pittsburgh Press agreed. He compared the play to “The Little Foxes” in triplicate. “It attempts so much, all of it with great integrity and thematic unity that it buckles, finally. I began to fear that World War II would begin and the Tolliver family would thrash through that . . . “
Yet “in many respects it’s a beautiful and humane work. An eventual film version may embrace Foote’s vision more readily.”
Foote is an expert film writer (“Tender Mercies,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Trip to Bountiful”) and some studio people are said to be flying out to Pittsburgh to take a look at the play. It’s a good bet that the Shuberts will send someone down from New York to scout out its theatrical future as well.
Foote also has the pleasure of seeing two of his children in the show--his daughter Hallie and his son, Horton Foote Jr.
Some American artists’ lives do have second acts.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Swami Bhaktipada: “Of all the undertakings known to man, celibacy is perhaps the most difficult. Dying is much easier.”