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At 84, Foote Has Plenty on His Plate

July 09, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Horton Foote had a great-aunt named Louisiana Texas Patience Horton. Everyone called her Loula. When she married, she added the name Irving to her list of monikers.

More than three decades ago, the memory of Loula inspired Foote to write "The Day Emily Married," which will finally receive its first full production this week, opening Friday at the 349-seat Robinson Theatre on the campus of Whittier College.

The production is a turning point for the Lost World, a professional company based at Whittier that devoted much of the past year to readings of the nine plays in Foote's "The Orphans' Home Cycle." This will be the company's first full production in a mid-size venue.

For Foote, however, it's just one more event in a long line that is keeping his profile awfully high for someone who's 84. He just returned from an Alaska festival that Edward Albee runs. It was devoted to Foote's work this year. Earlier this year, he directed his daughter Daisy's play "When They Speak of Rita" off-Broadway. He has written two new plays scheduled to premiere within the next year--one in New York and one in Houston.

Hollywood may forever think of Foote as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the original "Tender Mercies" and the adapted "To Kill a Mockingbird," but his stature within theatrical circles has soared in his ninth decade. In 1996, he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for "The Young Man From Atlanta."

The center of Foote's interest in "The Day Emily Married," he said, is the character of Lyd, who is loosely modeled on Loula--at least in the way that both women "epitomize the resistance to changes that are taking place in their society," The play, however, is set in the mid-'50s, long past Loula's heyday. During the play, oil is beginning to replace cotton as the foundation of the economy in Harrison, Texas, the fictional town that's based on Foote's hometown of Wharton, not far from Houston. It was from the Wharton house in which he grew up that Foote spoke about "Emily" last week by telephone.

In the play, aging Lyd and her husband, Lee, have loaded up their adult daughter Emily with great expectations that haven't panned out--and precious little independence. This problem has not vanished, Foote noted, though the details may have changed. While Lyd and Lee raised Emily to be the belle of the ball, today's parents fill their kids' schedules with lessons and camps and other activities on top of school. "We do all we can to turn them into super-children--and it doesn't really work," Foote said. "They go out in the world, and they're not the center of it, and they--and you--have to face what life has given them. Sometimes the truth is very difficult."

As someone who just directed his daughter's play, however, Foote acknowledged that "I talk a good line, but you just can't not be involved [with your children]. It never stops."

Soon after it was written, in the late '50s and early '60s, "Emily" was optioned by a Broadway producer, and Mildred Dunnock and Helen Hayes wanted to play Lyd, Foote said. Kim Stanley expressed interest in the title role. "But Broadway was changing. Serious plays were harder to produce. It's a dark play in many ways. I love it, but I didn't see any future in it." The recent interest in Foote's work brought "Emily" out of hiding, however, with an amateur workshop in Maryland three years ago. It was published in an anthology two years ago, and now it's taking center stage.

Foote hasn't done any rewrites, he said. The play "belongs so much to that period, I thought I should just leave it alone. It was almost like someone else had written it." Asked how it differs from his more recent work, Foote replied, "I'm not quite as fulsome now. ['Emily'] is a large work that tries so much. My later work is more concentrated. I don't know if that's good or bad."

*

The real Loula did have a daughter, who was described in Foote's memoir "Farewell" as "spoiled terribly." The daughter "worshiped her quiet, patient father, but was often irritable with her mother, rolling her eyes with exasperation when Loula began one of her stories," Foote wrote. This sounds a lot like the relationships in "The Day Emily Married," but Foote "invented a great deal," he said. "It all becomes a collage. I can't say any of it is literal."

And the lifestyle to which Lyd and, before her, Loula, adhered? It's gone, Foote said. The town of Wharton itself has "just about disappeared," with suburban malls closer to Houston wiping out the business district. "It's a ghost town."

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