Ford’s Theatre claims one of the most gorgeous sets currently on any Washington stage. As you walk in from the slushy, snowy streets, the theater is all pink sunsets stretching to the ceiling, painted fields of rustling grasses fading off into the distance. Scenic designer Robin Stapley has done a tremendous job of evoking a vast Texas cotton plantation within the confines of a plush velvet-lined theater.
That said, for the 90-minute duration of The Carpetbagger’s Children, the set provides the wrong kind of inspiration. I found myself desperately longing to jump on a horse and ride far, far away from the cloying stasis of Horton Foote’s three Southern sisters and their self-imprisoning stories.
Foote was one of America’s most beloved playwrights and screenwriters, with a Pulitzer Prize (for The Young Man From Atlanta) and two Academy Awards (for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies), so it’s hard to believe he could have missed with what Ford’s calls an “exploration of one family’s life in the Post-Reconstruction South.” And yet miss he did, for the play—directed by Mark Ramont—lacks a compelling narrative, sympathetic characters, or any remotely absorbing action.
Each of the three sisters—who are played by some of Washington’s most accomplished actresses—takes a turn telling her story while the other two sit placidly sewing, reading, or twiddling their thumbs. Cornelia (Kimberly Schraf) is the eldest and the one her father depends on to keep the family plantation intact. Grace Anne (Nancy Robinette) is the rebel who marries against her father’s wishes and is cast out from the family until his death. Sissie (Holly Twyford, so magnificent in last year’s A Fox on the Fairway) is the youngest, and that’s about the only thing interesting about her, apart from her penchant for breaking out repeatedly into the same song, like a less-grotesque Baby Jane.
Whatever your favorite female-oriented story, The Carpetbagger’s Children is guaranteed to have elements of it. Like Little Women, there are originally four sisters until the favorite (coincidentally named Beth) gets sick and dies. Like The Glass Menagerie, there are long stretches in which faded belles recalling their happy former glory. The constant repetitions of “And then I said . . .” and “My God, Mama!” give the production the determined feel of a post-Civil War Steel Magnolias. Just for good measure, there’s a strong surrealist air of Samuel Beckett, with the three elderly women reciting their stories without listening to one another—or interacting. If not for the fact that two of them eventually leave the stage, you might worry that they (and you) will be stuck there forever. “It was all very depressing. It was all very sad,” says Cornelia toward the end of the play, an expression you might agree with.
It’s possible that The Carpetbagger’s Children was envisioned as a love letter to simpler times—a romanticized, sanitized version of the South. But Foote instead dwells on the tragedies that befall the sisters, from the ostracism the family experiences for their patriarch’s Unionist views to Cornelia’s deception at the hands of a con man to Grace Anne’s sadness at being rejected by her family. The only remotely cheerful story is that of Sissie, whose repeated song bears the lyrics “Oh, the clanging bells of time, night and day they never cease.” Listening to the women’s stories is like being subjected to the ramblings of a slightly dotty elderly relative, but without the affection that compels you to be interested. Yes, times have changed. But judging from the way they apparently used to be, that’s a blessed relief.
At Ford’s Theatre through February 13. Buy tickets ($25 to $55) at Ford’s Web site.