'Young Man From Atlanta' Director Discusses Horton Foote—a 'Great American Playwright'

One of the first things that jumps out when looking at the Playbill bio of Michael Wilson, director of Horton's Foote Young Man From Atlanta at New York's Signature Theatre, is that he has directed a lot of Foote's plays—a whole lot. He also has directed many Tennessee Williams plays as well as one charming production of Talley's Folly, Lanford Wilson froufrou-laced valentine of a play. So, from this vantage point, his taste is impeccable. He has a feel for small plays and for those with well-drawn characters.

Wilson is also a man on a mission: to cement Foote's rightfully high place among American playwrights. He made a major contribution toward that end in 2009 with his production at the Hartford Stage Company and later at the Signature of The Orphan's Home Cycle, a group of nine one-act plays about the Robedaux family set in the fictional Harrison, Texas.


Wilson has directed play for over 30 years. He discovered Horton Foote while in a class at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill where the then-head of the theater department Milly S. Barranger,—she stepped down in 1999.

"While she didn't teach Foote formally, in 1987 or so, Milly did go up to New York and see two plays that were running at the same time. One was Widow Claire starring Matthew Broderick and Hallie Foote, and Lily Dale with Mary Stuart Masterson and, I think, Eric Stoltz. And she talked about how wonderful they were, and it made a deep impression on me. Because I knew Milly didn't suffer any fools and that if she thought something was truly excellent and must be seen—you know, 'attention must be paid'—then I knew it had to be so. At the same time, I became acquainted with The Trip to Bountiful, the motion picture that Pete Masterson made of that play, teleplay screenplay with Geraldine Page and Carlin Glynn."

The Trip to Bountiful has had several incarnations. First, in 1953, it was a television play. Later that year, it was produced to Broadway. In 1985, Peter Masterson directed a film version, starring Geraldine Page, Carlin Glynn and Rebecca De Mornay. In 2007, it was given an exquisite production at Signature that starred Lois Smith. And, finally, in 2013, it returned to Broadway where it won two Tony Awards, for Cicely Tyson and Condola Rashad.

A few years after Barranger's New York trip, in 1992, at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Wilson says, "I put together the first reading of Young Man From Atlanta, when I was a young artistic associate there. This was right after Horton's wife Lillian had died. He had written this very exciting new play that he had not heard, and he had been on the road directed The Roads to Home with Jean Stapleton. We wanted to engage him and maybe get his mind for a precious few hours off his dear wife. Strange how life works. Now many years later, I am directing the first New York revival of the play."

Young Man from Atlanta's Cast
The cast of "The Young Man From Atlanta," playing at New York's Signature Theatre. Monique Carboni

A lot has happened in the interim. "Now having done The Orphans Home Cycle with all the other plays by Horton that Lily Dale and Pete appear in, I feel fully prepared for wallop that this play has."

Like one of his literary heroes, William Faulkner, Foote has largely concentrated on a "little postage stamp" of real estate—in Foote's case the small town of Harrison and nearby Houston—and he explores and develops the lives of some characters over the course of several plays.

The Young Man From Atlanta, a later play, received its first full production in 1995, a period when Foote was experimenting with form. "As I look back over his body of work," Wilson says, "there is a lot of invention and experimentation particularly in this last 20-plus years of his writing. If you look at The Carpetbagger's Children from 2001, it's almost like a fugue play." In that mesmerizing work, three characters sit, facing forward and tell their interrelated stories.

Truth and Allusion

"But Young Man, I felt during the process, is his most Ibsen-like play. I know that [Norwegian playwright Henrik] Ibsen was huge influence on him because he and Tennessee Williams both saw Eva La Gallienne's Ghosts on tour. At times, I felt it was like A Doll's House with Lily Dale and Will, and like Ghosts because how much of Young Man is the sins of the father are visited upon the son.

It's been a thrilling journey. Dramaturgically, it is has been fascinating exploring this mature piece. In some ways, it defies a simple explanation."

In addition to Ibsen here Wilson sees many other influences on Foote, such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. You can some Willy Loman in Will Kidder, the lead male character, a patriarch in the final chilly days of his autumn. But Wilson is quick to point out, "It's not his response to Death of a Salesman. And it does have reverberations of other masterworks in drama, but it is its own unique achievement."

Aidan Quinn in Young Man From Atlanta
Aidan Quinn plays a defeated Will Kidder in "The Young Man From Atlanta." Monique Carboni

The play ends with Will and his wife Lily Dale in an embrace that echoes the final moments of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee and Foote got to know each other well especially through their association with Signature Theatre. Albee was a Residency 1 Playwright at the company in its 1993–1994 season; Foote had the same honor the following season. Residency 1 playwrights have whole seasons devoted to their plays. So far, the works of more than 30 Residency playwrights have been seen at the company.

"I thought about Edward so much," Wilson says. "In this case they have lost a real child it's not an imaginary child, but who's to say that that imaginary was any less real. Like Virginia Woolf's George and Martha, Will and Lily Dale also rewrite their son's narrative as needed, but unlike George and Martha, they don't seem to know their son Bill very well at all."

Wilson says, "One of the great lines of the play is where Will says 'There was a Bill I knew and a Bill you knew and that's the only Bill I care to know about.' What's ironic is that he is assuming the Bill he knows is the same the one Lily Dale knows, and the audience is pretty clear that that is not true."

Indeed, their cooks know Bill better than Kidders do. It's like John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, in which two sets of parents don't know their own children well at all but feel very connected to a total stranger.

"That is the great tragedy," Wilson says. "One of the riverbeds that run through this play is they really didn't know their son, Lily Dale comforts herself by believing that Bill had cleaved so much to God and that fulfilled him spiritually. But the fact he was someone so desperately alone that he didn't belong in the world that she had brought him into: this Ozzie and Harriet America, postwar world—but I don't think Bill felt that comfortable running wild with this nascent community of rebels in Atlanta. Bill just didn't belong anywhere."

And here images David Rabe's gut-wrenching Vietnam-era 1971 drama Sticks and Bones come to mind.

Then Wilson points out, "There is another Albee-esque moment when the young man comes to the front door. They want to pretend that they are not in, and Clara, their cook, says, 'He can see you all in here.' It's almost like the end of Act One of A Delicate Balance.

Finally, Wilson points out: "When Will says at the end of Act One of Young Man: 'I'm a simple man at heart. I'm a country boy at heart, and all I want to do is work and, and now they tell me I can't work. They've taken my work away from me,' that's Lear on the heath! He is going through his own version of madness, but through that he'll find a new kind of clarity."

And while allusions might be plentiful, none of this, Wilson says, makes the play or any of Foote's work, derivative: "It more reflects Horton's love of the theater. He loved going to other playwright's shows."

Foote's work can be enjoyed on many levels, individually or as details of a larger canvas. Someday perhaps the whole Harrison saga can be seen over the course of a season or a few seasons. Until that happens, however, Wilson says that "it would be really exciting to see Roots in a Parched Ground, Lily Dale and Cousins—that is, plays in which younger versions of Lily Dale and Will appear—and then to get into Young Man From Atlanta—the Lily Dale plays.

"You know, early on, Horton wasn't as charitable to Lily Dale and Will. In this play he really has such empathy for them. You can even see some gay activism. In Lily Dale, he gives us a window into the pain that some parents did in 1950—I still think they do today. I am not reducing the play to be one thing. But I did say from the beginning that this is Horton's gay play. It did come out when Paul Rudnick had Jeffrey off-Broadway and [Tony Kushner's] Angels in America was being done out West and was already coming to Broadway. But Horton did march to the beat of his own drummer, and if he was going to tackle a subject it was going to be in his own inimitable fashion. He remained true to his voice.

"Even though the play is a ghost play and there is a lot of pain, there is also affirmation. And you get the sense that this couple is going to stick it out together."

And Wilson points out yet another level to Young Man: social criticism: "Will's illusions about being number one were what we were taught. We're doing that again: Make America great again. Be number one. The biggest house. 'We lost our son, so I'll get you this big house.' Horton was a very shrewd critic of our capitalist society. He was a spiritualist, not a materialist."

A Great American Playwright

Wilson's enthusiasm for Foote's work and his prospects is palpable: "Hallie and have some more projects that I will personally be connected to, and there is a new biography coming out by Crystal Brian. This is an exciting moment. I think we are going to keep discovering more about this incredible artist."

When Wilson was studying theater at Chapel Hill, Foote was not on the syllabus. "He should have been in retrospect," Wilson says, "and it is something I have been trying to get corrected. I think there is a growing appreciation for his work, and there is place for him the pantheon in great American playwrights. Actually, I think he is the great American playwright because he understands the American character so thoroughly, and writes about it so truthfully."

Young Man From Atlanta is playing through December 15 at the Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street in New York. For more inform go to SignatureTheatre.org.