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Pulitzer Prize winning THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA @ Beck Center

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

On the surface, Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA, now in production at Beck Center, tells the tale of the Kidders (Will and Lily Dale), a Houston, Texas couple who, in 1950, take different paths in coping with the death of Bill, their only son.

Beyond the surface tale, the script probes into the consequences of false dreams, misguided values, the southern tradition of pride, the covering of reality with illusion, elected ignorance, racism, conspiracy theories, the changing business environment, ageism, and possible homosexuality.

Bill, whose relationship with his father centered on incidental emotional attachment, moved to Atlanta, lives in a rooming house, and shares his space and resources with Randy a younger man.  One day, Bill, who has never learned to swim, while traveling in Florida on business, stops his car, walks into a small lake, and drowns.

Lily Dale believes the death was accidental, and desperately turns to religion as her means of escape.  She believes that Bill was pious and couldn’t have killed himself.  Her beliefs are backed up by Randy, who attended Bill’s funeral, grieves mightily, and has become Lily Dale’s emotional prop.

Lily Dale who is childish and lonely, with no one but her religious beliefs, her bible, and the maid to turn to, has given Randy, often referred to as the “young man from Atlanta,”  large sums of money to supposedly aid him in his job search and the needs of his family.

Will knows information which he has not shared with Lily Dale, such as Bill gave Randy over $100,000 and has been told by Carson, his father-in-law’s nephew who lived in the same Atlanta rooming house as Bill, that Randy was a liar and had a bad reputation.

Will, who believes that he must work hard to have “the best of everything,” suddenly finds himself, in his waning years, with a dead son, an emotionally vacant wife, let loose from his high paying job, replaced by a younger man who he hired and trained, ill with a heart condition, and disillusioned over his beliefs.

Though he never appears on stage, much of the angst of the story centers on Randy, who may or may not be a charlatan, and may or may not have been Bill’s kept lover.

As the play comes to its bleak conclusion, Will states, “Everything will be all right, the best and biggest is as empty as the young man’s lies.”

After being produced off-Broadway, THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  A 1998 Broadway run lasted only 84 performances, but was nominated for, but did not win a Tony Award for Best Play.

One might ask why this play received the Pulitzer Prize.  It is definitely not a play which has or will become an American theatre classic.  It is not in the class of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, OUR TOWN, or LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.  There are, however, other winners who were recognized for being a “play for its time”  and are not stage classics.  Remember, this was a script about the 1950s.  It was in the forefront of dealing, even indirectly, with homosexuality.   One of the only major plays to take on that subject was TEA AND SYMPATHY.  It also dealt with the topical subject of the roles of blacks in the South,  the status of women in Southern society,  changing business philosophies, the shifting population, the 1900 mid-century work ethic, conspiracy theory, and ageism.

The characters in THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA may be familiar to the avid theatre-goer and script reader as Foote revived most of them from his THE ORPHAN’S HOME CYCLE, a series of plays often referred to as “the story of a family,” the Foote family.

Horton Foote, who wrote over sixty plays and numerous screen plays and television productions, is probably best known for writing the screen play for the 1962 film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  Though most of his plays have been performed in community theatres, with several having off-Broadway showings, his THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL did have a Broadway run.

The Beck production, under the direction of Eric Schmiedl, is generally faithful to Foote’s writing and the setting of the script.  Paced in a leisurely southern manner, the play unfolds slowly.  Even in strong emotional scenes, there is sometimes a “dragging” pace, which may lose the audience’s attention.

Foote is known for writing in the language of the time and place of the story.  This, again, provides a good reflection of the personality of the character’s but does not always make for attention demanding interactions.

Dudley Swetland rants well as Will.  As the character becomes more fatigued and defeated, the actor nicely textures his pace and dynamism.  His final speech, which is presented in a near whisper, is compelling.

Anne McEvoy gives a clear illusion of Lily Dale’s lack of being in touch with reality.  She is a traditional southern lady who lives in dreams and fantasy.  She clearly develops an almost child-like Lily Dale, with no friends, who refuses to face the facts, obsesses about rumors, half-truths and religion.

Michael Regnier clearly develops Pete, Lily Dale’s step-father, into a real person.  Tina D. Stump creates Clara into a stereotype of the well-mannered Black southern woman who knows her role in the household.

Aaron Benson’s scene design creates the correct atmosphere for the upscale nature and the time of the play, incorporating a Frank Lloyd Wright feel to the dwelling appointed with the clean-lined modern furniture of the era.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Though THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, potential viewers should not expect to see an epic play.  The tale is a 1950s tale which reflects the era and southern attitudes of the day.  The production values reflect Foote’s writing style and gets his message across.

THE  YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA is scheduled to run through June 28, 2015 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to

Next at Beck:  Green Day’s musical AMERICAN IDIOT (July 10-August 16).