Many of America's best writers are Southerners, but their work doesn't necessarily represent the South as we know it. At their best, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor have no equals, but they frequently shed light on the human condition through Gothic and grotesque extremities, and not the Dixie we see out our windows.
Horton Foote may be the most reliable writer at capturing Southern life as it is truly lived. He's earned most literary prizes available, from the 1995 Pulitzer for the stage play The Young Man From Atlanta to two Academy Awards – one for Best Adapted Screenplay (1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, one for Original (1983's Tender Mercies). If Foote tends to be overlooked, that may be because he specializes in crafting scenes of quiet, understated dignity.
"The case could be made for Horton Foote as the greatest living playwright from the region," says Tom Key, artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, which hopes to restore interest in Foote with a revival of his now-obscure 1952 play, The Chase. The drama premiered Wednesday, April 11, and runs through May 13.
A contemporary of the likes of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller during Broadway's heyday in the 1950s, Foote remains a productive writer at the age of 91. Despite living in New York, Los Angeles and other cities for extended periods, he always kept a home in Wharton, Texas, which, under the fictionalized name of "Harrison," has been the wellspring for nearly all of his work.
"I'm glad I chose it, because it's given me a lot of good material," Foote says in a whispery but hospitable voice during a phone conversation from Los Angeles. "I think it's the early years that influence the rest of your life. I was blessed to be part of a large, extended family that was very voluble about their experiences."
With plays such as A Trip to Bountiful and screenplays such as Tender Mercies, Foote frequently earned the nickname "The American Chekhov" for instilling universal truths in seemingly simple episodes, such as Tender Mercies' Robert Duvall as a washed-up country singer finding meaning through gardening or fixing screen doors.
One of the founders of the American Actors Company, Foote began writing to provide plum roles for himself, but earned more acclaim for his words. He says The Chase, his first Broadway play, received mixed reviews for its 1952 debut at New York's Playhouse Theatre. "John Hodiak, who played the sheriff and was a lovely man, didn't somehow project, so the heart of the play was affected," Foote recalls. "But The Chase had a wonderful company and made Kim Stanley a star."
Jose Ferrer, who won a Best Actor Oscar for Cyrano de Bergerac, directed The Chase's world premiere, but had a surprise for Foote. During rehearsals, Ferrer asked Foote, "You know about my method?" and Foote replied, "No, what's your method?" Ferrer said, "I'm like the coach. You stage the show, and before we open, I'll come give a pep talk, like a coach does."
Foote had nothing to do with the film adaptation of The Chase in 1966, which became a famous flop despite starring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. When Theatrical Outfit's Tom Key contacted Foote asking him to recommend one of his plays that he thought deserved more attention, the playwright suggested The Chase, saying the film was so bad, it killed interest in the script.
"He made me promise not to watch the movie," Key says.
The Chase depicts a rural sheriff (Mark Kincaid) trying to protect an escaped convict (Daniel May) from powerful, bloodthirsty interests in a small town. (Kincaid played Atticus Finch in Georgia Ensemble Theatre's production of To Kill a Mockingbird in 2003.) In directing The Chase, Key says he and the cast have been struck by the work's brutal realism.
"There's an air of gentility around Horton, from his personality and his themes, but this is a very tough play," Key says. "This is not a man who has blinders on about the human experience. There's nothing sentimental about it." Key remarks that when Victoria Leigh was auditioning for the role of Anna, she said, of the convict's family, "You get the impression that if these people were living today, they'd be the ones in the woods making crystal meth."
Foote's conservative, simple writing style fell from favor during the more experimental 1960s, but he made a comeback with a mammoth nine-play cycle, The Orphan's Home, in the 1970s and '80s. The Young Man From Atlanta, its semiepilogue, won the Pulitzer in 1995. Oddly enough, no local theater company has produced The Young Man From Atlanta, possibly because neither Atlanta nor the young man appear on stage during the drama about the tragic dimensions of an elderly couple's marriage in Houston. (Nevertheless, Foote captures the rivalry between Houston and Atlanta to be the premiere city of the South with amusing insight.)
Key hopes Theatrical Outfit one day will be the first local theater to stage The Young Man From Atlanta, and believes a resurgence of interest in Foote is just waiting to happen: "Some authors disappear over time, but I think the real difference will be in his staying power. His is the kind of writing that's just beginning to connect to the universal audience. Maybe 50 or 100 years from now, the appreciation will be much, much greater."
Unquestionably Foote offers two constant reminders of his soft-spoken eloquence: To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, with their definitive, Oscar-winning performances from Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall, respectively. Foote, in fact, recommended Duvall for his career-launching screen role as Mockingbird's Boo Radley. On a commentary track accompanying the Tender Mercies DVD, Foote describes Duvall's talents in a way that neatly encapsulates his own strengths as a writer: "He has the same love for – I won't say 'common people,' because I don't know what that means – but people you wouldn't think were complicated or interesting. His great gift and talent is that he is able to illuminate these people, so you find them more than interesting, you find them fascinating. His work is always filled with revelations."
With such plays as The Chase, Foote's body of work is similarly replete with revelations about living in the South. And living everywhere, for that matter.