February 3, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Sister act

‘The Carpetbagger’s Children’
Through Feb. 13
Ford’s Theatre
511 10th St, NW
$15-$55

Holly Twyford as Sissie with (background) Kimberly Schraf as Cornelia and Nancy Robinette as Grace Ann in the Ford’s Theatre Society production of Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” directed by Mark Ramont. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Ford’s Theatre)

Few artists evoke memory like the late, great American playwright Horton Foote. His astounding sense of place and ability to gently but truthfully revisit the past through indelibly drawn characters have secured his rank among dramatists.

With his “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” now at Ford’s Theatre, Foote once again takes us back to bygone small town life in coastal Texas. Via revolving monologues delivered by the three surviving Thompson sisters – responsible Cornelia (Kimberly Schraf), defiant Grace Anne (Nancy Robinette), and tractable Sissie played by Holly Twyford who is gay — the splintered family’s well-remembered oral history is revealed.

As the offspring of a union soldier who settled in post-construction Huntington (the usual stand-in for the playwright’s native Wharton, Texas) and made good by buying large tracts of land from the war-impoverished locals, the sisters grew up feeling apart from the surrounding community. And their father’s desire that his heirs not marry for fear they might one day break up his massive estate did little to lessen that sense of separateness.

Looking back, the women recall a life under the thumb of their authoritarian late father. Each in turn talks about property and cotton farming, Grace Anne’s ill-advised elopement to the gold-digging Jackson Le Grand, Sissie’s singing, and strong Cornelia’s moment of weakness when she fell for an insincere suitor. The ladies reverently recollect Beth, their beloved and beautiful older sister who died young, and make frequent reference to their still living (but not seen on stage) brother and senile mother.

While the trio approach the same subjects form different angles, they seem to disagree on very little. Initially, this sisterly consensus among very different women strikes one as an elderly playwright’s (“The Carpetbagger’s Children” is Foote’s penultimate play — written in 2001, eight years before his death at 92) missed storytelling opportunity, but more likely it serves as a testament to the Thompson’s deep-seated family lore.

Gracefully staged by Mark Ramont, the 90-minute show is made up almost solely of engaging monologues — humorous, poignant and real — like most of Foote’s work which includes southern set plays like “Trip to Bountiful” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta” as well as Academy Award-wining screenplays for the films “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies.” The few instances when the characters briefly interact leave the audience yearning for more.

The cast — comprised of three D.C. favorites – is a treat. With steady gaze and set jaw, Robinette captures Grace Anne’s lifelong rebellion. Twyford’s Sissie, the self-described baby of the family, is blissfully dim and musical (she repeatedly sings “O, the Clanging Bells of Time”). But it’s Schraf as Cornelia, the sensible sister selected by papa to run the estate, who subtly anchors the play and fares most convincingly as one of Foote’s southern women.

Just below the box where Lincoln was shot in the head by that crazy actor John Wilkes Booth, set designer Robin Stapley has placed chairs and a lace-covered dining table crowded with silver-framed family photos. The suggested parlor is backed by endless acres of fertile fields and colorful skies.

One by one, each of the actors fades away, exiting through a cutout in the orange sunset, beautifully expressing the end of a family’s era, lost in time but not forgotten.

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