Personal Slice of Life : Horton Foote's 'Lily Dale' is the third play in a cycle detailing his father's quest to find emotional safety in the family.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

Somerset Maugham said that all one had to do was keep writing, and the honors would eventually arrive.

For playwright Horton Foote those honors have been many, including the affections of a public that has been entranced by his imagery and his private view of a particular slice of American life since the 1940s.

His plays from Broadway and television's Golden Age (such as "The Trip to Bountiful"), and his award-winning screenplays (such as "Tender Mercies") are part of a body of work that stands alone in its longevity and scope. But within that body is another fascinating achievement, a cycle of nine plays under the umbrella title "The Orphans' Home." It examines the life of Foote's father, who spent a lifetime searching for the emotional safety of "family."

"Lily Dale," making its local premiere tonight at the Little Victory Theatre, is the third play of that cycle, which details the first major emotional watershed in the adult life of its protagonist, Horace Robedaux. The play is directed by Crystal Brian, who has some special insights into the cycle and the career of Horton Foote.

Brian, an assistant professor in the theater department at Whittier College, chose fellow Texan Foote as the subject of her doctoral dissertation.

"There had been very little work done on him," she says. "It was a combination of his work and our having the same kind of background."

Brian spent time with Foote at his family home in Wharton, Tex., and remembers her research with warmth. "To hear him talk about his family, and the evolution that all that goes through in his turning it into poetry and fiction in the plays, is really beautiful. He's a lovely man. There's a sort of really deep dignity and profundity in him as a person. His skeletal style is so deep. I think that comes from his love of poetry. You sort of absorb that use of metaphor and symbol, but in such an integrated way that the plays read as though they're just regular slices of life. But they're not that at all. They carry levels of meaning that aren't there on the surface."

In a telephone conversation with Foote from his home in Wharton, the playwright says he's taking a breather. Looking forward to his 79th birthday in March, Foote has just finished directing his "Night Seasons" with New York's Signature Theatre Company. It's the second in a four-play season of Foote's plays, which began with "Talking Pictures" and will conclude with "The Young Man From Atlanta" and "Laura Dennis."

Talking about the "Orphans" cycle, Foote says, "It is based on the experiences of my father, although not literally. It really is about the search of a young man who was semi-orphaned at age 10, and his search for a home. That's the thematic approach of the whole cycle, his search."

Foote says he didn't plan to write nine plays. His family and his memories just asserted themselves, and by the time he had finished three of the plays, he realized that a pattern was beginning to form.

"The kind of writing that I like," Foote says, "always deals with personal experiences. When I say personal, I mean it comes out of what you know, and what you've heard about and been raised on. Someone said that some writers have their themes established by the time they're 10 years old, but they're not aware of it. I certainly believe that in the writers I like best."

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When asked about the predominance of a Southern school of writers in the 20th Century, Foote suggests that it may have come about because of the region's strong oral-history tradition.

"We are trained to be listeners as youngsters. Some of us listen more carefully than others and really get fascinated with what we hear. And the variations were very personal. Often the stories had a common root, and were commonly experienced, particularly if you came from a very large extended family like I did."

A reference to the number of plays he has written causes him to laugh. "Oh, my goodness," he says. "I haven't counted. A lot , I'll tell you that." Foote is still writing them. The last two plays at Signature Theatre Company are both new. "And I find myself," he admits, "still beginning to make notes for things that I hope to finish."

The young man who headed for New York in the '30s, was professionally involved with Martha Graham and the early modern dance movement, who was influenced by avant-garde theater forms through experimental companies, and who gained experience writing live television drama, has always gone back home for his inspiration, even as he does today to rest from a busy schedule.

Brian compares Foote's plays structurally to those of Ibsen. "There's something sort of mystical," she says, "about working on Foote's plays. He plays each one of the parts as he writes it. Then he gives you just the very top level of it. You have to find all the things he has layered underneath it. It's not in the words, but in the way people are with one another."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Lily Dale."

Location: Little Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 19.

Price: $15.

Call: (818) 841-5421.

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