BWW Review: THE ORPHANS' HOME CYCLE at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre
Horton Foote's "Orphans' Home Cycle" is a monumental project for any theatre company. Kansas City's Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre should be recognized for taking it on. It is the first time any company has attempted Foote's Opus since its short Broadway run ending in early 2010.
This festival type presentation demands tremendous effort from cast, staff, and its audiences especially when the three-night event is performed in repertory as it is at the MET-KC's Warwick Theater through November 18.
A little about the author, Horton Foote. Foote died while working on the "Orphans' Home Cycle" in 2009 at age 92. The project was pushed forward to completion with the help of Foote's daughter Hallie, who was also in the original cast.
Horton Foote was not chopped liver as a writer. He owned two Oscars for screenwriting, a Pulitzer for drama, and a raft of other awards. "The Orphan's Home Cycle" is roughly based upon the life of Foote's own Father in a southeastern Texas town near Houston. The father acquires the pseudonym of Horace Robedeau. The town acquires the made up name of Harrison, Texas. As someone who was born in that part of Texas, there are parts that are relatable.
Foote was a prolific craftsman. He wrote dozens of short pieces. Many were produced initially as hour-long television programs. Some were on the "Hallmark" channel. "The Orphans' Home Cycle" is a mash-up of nine of these short works. The first short play in the cycle (Roots In A Parched Earth) was created in 1962. The remaining eight works were written over decades.
This iteration of "The Orphans' Home Cycle" requires a cast of thousands (actually about 30) to double and triple in brass. The director and stage manager (Karen Paisley and James Paisley) need the ability to juggle set pieces, props, light cues, sound cues, schedules, and costumes with the acuity of the best that Ringing Brothers ever put forward.
Director Karen Paisley sums up when she describes the project as a "live action mini-series." A set had to be designed which allowed itself to be struck not only every night, but after every act and re-established for the next pieces part of this huge endeavor. The set is essentially a group of specially constructed platforms that stretch width wise along the performance area. It may be more than fifty feet from stage right to stage left. Place is denoted by dozens of set pieces.
The good news is that this harried and determined posse has created a finished project with pretty-good-style, despite the challenges. There are many credible performances, but it would dishonest not to note that the massive scope leads to some unevenness in some of the portrayals. It is my suspicion that Foote's touch to some of these characters may have been a little lighter than what is communicated onstage. Shifting gears from dark to light is always difficult.
Outstanding is Todd Lanker as Horace, the central character in seven of the one-act plays and the introductory passage. Mr. Lanker is mostly unflappable, pleasant, and determined throughout. Backing him up are Elaine Christensen as his wife Elizabeth in five of the nine acts and Robert Gibby Brand as Elizabeth's Father Henry Vaughn. Ms. Christensen maintains enviable eye and relational contact to every other actor on stage with her. Mr. Brand is an excellent old pro. He relates, has a purpose to every line inflection, and a destination for every stage movement. Worth special recognition is Annie Schwaner as Lily Dale, and Tim Ahlenius who plays Horace and Lilly's stepfather and other characters. Other actors do a fine job, but the scope of the cast would lead to a long list of names many of whom I honestly lost track of.
It is important to note that Foote designed each Part of the "Cycle" as a standalone experience for those not committed to all three parts.
If you, as audience member, are in the mood for a miniseries, "The Orphans' Home Cycle" runs through November 18 in repertory at the MET. It is suggested that potential audiences refer to the MET website www.metkc.org for guidance on when each part performs. You are unlikely to enjoy this opportunity again any time soon. Tickets are available on the website and by telephone.
Photos courtesy of Metropolitan Ensemble Theater and Bob Paisley