Horton Foote lifted the title for his play “The Habitation of Dragons” (now at the Zephyr Theatre) directly from the Book of Isaiah. No wonder. The troubles visited upon the beleaguered Tollivers of Harrison, Tex., are straight out of the Old Testament. Along with the suicide, infidelity, sudden death, madness and murder in this play, one suspects a plague of frogs may be in the offing.
Set in 1935, “Dragons” captures the vibrancy of the Southern experience without caricature or condescension. Foote, a two-time Oscar winner and the recipient of the 1995 Pulitzer for drama, casts a formidable array of story lines in this complex play, then reels them all in without a snarl. Not only are we privy to the elaborate, often tortured interactions of the present-day townsfolk, but we learn, through layers of juicy anecdote, about the eccentricities and failings of those past. In this small town, everyone has a rich history, and no one, especially Death, is a stranger.
Leonard Tolliver (Jack Stehlin) has overcome poverty and a festering childhood trauma to become a prosperous attorney. Leonard bickers constantly with his rebellious young brother George (Cameron Watson), also an attorney, despite the conciliatory efforts of their mother, Lenora (Joan Chodorow).
Since the premature death of his father, Leonard had been the head of the family. Apart from the brothers’ frequent misunderstandings, the Tollivers are a stable clan. Only the sudden arrival of the brothers’ estranged Uncle Virgil (Neil Vipond), who has a heart attack during a surprise visit and becomes a permanent fixture, causes a ripple in the serene surface of this family’s life.
But there’s a worm in Eden. Leonard has no idea that Margaret (Lisa Barnes), his wife and the mother of his two sons, is cheating on him--until that fact is brought painfully home by a horrible accident. From that point onward, the family seems to fall into the hands of an apparently angry--or at least highly capricious--God.
Devoid of saving grace and tender mercies, this would be a mere disaster yarn. However, director Crystal Brian, a Texas native and a Foote scholar, not only proficiently choreographs her large cast but eloquently amplifies Foote’s underlying message of humanism and hope.
From the smallest roles to the leads, the actors display a smooth professionalism and a keen empathy for their material.
Particularly subtle and effective, Stehlin details his character’s metamorphosis from prickly self-righteousness to compassion, agonizingly acquired. Watson perfectly captures the guilty exhilaration of a man for whom tragedy has had unexpected benefits. Chodorow’s gentle, Madonna-like stoicism could be a template for generations of suffering Southern womanhood. And Barnes moves us to pity and horror as we realize, with a chill, just what a fine line of fate and happenstance separates us from the same desolate, forsaken habitation where dragons dwell.
* “The Habitation of Dragons,” Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave ., Los Angeles. This week: Thursday, Friday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Regular schedule: Fridays , Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 8. $18.50. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.