The Carpetbagger's Children

Horton Foote's drama blows in like a breeze from the gulf, warm and whispery

Arts Review

The Carpetbagger's Children

Larry L. King Theatre at Austin Playhouse, 3601 S. Congress, 474-8497,

Through April 10

Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

Stories. They're the mortar and paste of families, binding kin together. This is how Sister passed. This is how Papa built his fortune. This is why Mama walked out of Brother's wedding.

This is why I stopped speaking to the rest of the family. Even when relations are separated by distance or estrangement, they continue to tell the stories of their clan, if only to get a hearing for their version of events. The sagas of how things came to pass, who's mad at whom, the scandals, weddings, and funerals endure; they are thicker than blood.

If ever a drama affirmed this simple truth, it is The Carpetbagger's Children. Horton Foote's 2001 work is nothing but stories. Three sisters take turns recounting tales of their family life in the small Gulf Coast town of Harrison, Texas, in the first half of the 20th century. The women sit apart – Grace Anne sewing in her rocker, Cornelia at the desk that holds the account ledger, Sissie in an easy chair, leafing through sheet music – and almost never interact. On occasion, one may stand and take a step forward, but in the main, they hold to their solitary seats as they unspool the history of the Thompson family in alternating monologues. So little occurs in terms of action on the stage that to refer to this as a "drama" seems inapt.

But what the play lacks in theatricality it makes up for with a kind of music. The stories that Foote has woven for his sisters to tell have a gentle rhythm to them, like country hymns with their modest and unfussy tunes. They roll along, and it's easy to be carried along with them, back to the simpler time they describe, to the fields with their broad expanses of cotton, to the family manse fanned by coastal breezes.

The Different Stages production comes across like a light wind off the gulf, warm and whispery. Director Norman Blumensaadt made a wise choice of venue in the Larry L. King Theatre; in this cozy space, everyone in the audience is within a few feet of the performers, close enough to feel as if we're guests in the Thompsons' parlor (a feeling enhanced by the handsome furniture and antique photographs on Jeremy Delgado's set). The actresses have no need to raise their voices, and their soft delivery draws us closer to them, heightening the intimacy. And their easy familiarity with the material, the way they are at home in these kinds of family stories, helps root them in these sisters: Jennifer Underwood's Grace Anne, her narrowed eyes and tart delivery signaling the pain she still carries over her husband's mistreatment by the family; Kathy Rose Center's Cornelia, in her crisp cornflower shift the picture of responsibility and levelheadedness; and Anne Hulsman's Sissie, bright of eyes and quickest to smile, her voice the most Southern and melodic – qualities befitting the sister praised for her singing. These women seem to belong to these stories.

By the time we have heard all they have to tell, the stories have spanned close to a century, from their father's arrival in Harrison following the Civil War to the years after World War II, when mechanization and a changing society force Cornelia to evict the tenant farmers from their land. We feel the weight of all that time, the disappearance of the world these women knew for so much of their lives and the people who inhabited it. And under that weight, even the family's stories begin to crumble, as the sisters' aged mother starts to insist that her late husband was a general, not a private, and fought not for the Union but for the Confederacy. In that, we can hear the distant bell that tolls for every one of us, every family. The carpetbagger's children know its sound, but they can't resist passing along their history before shuffling off into eternity.

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The Carpetbagger's Children, Horton Foote, Different Stages, Norman Blumensaadt, Jennifer Underwood, Anne Hulsman, Kathy Center Rose

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