“The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Ford’s Theatre


When Kimberly Schraf, Holly Twyford and Nancy Robinette come back onto the set to take their final bows for their work in Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Ford’s Theatre, you expect a whole bunch of people to follow them on out—Texas townspeople, family members, momma and poppa, brother and brother-in-law, swindlers and Confederates, best friends, children, sharecroppers, and lost loves and friends.

Nobody shows up of course, but they’ve been there through the whole hour and a half of this intimate, epic play, rich in stories, rich in language, rich in real people and ghosts.

That’s what happens when you marry a trio of gifted actresses—and these women are among Washington’s finest—to gorgeous writing, and a playwright’s ability to evoke a sense of place through memory and spoken stories.

Foote, who died last year, was among the top tier of American playwrights, not just by his output, which was large, but by his particular gift, which was to revisit the Texas places in which he grew up, delve into his own life and memories and, with writing tinged with hard-scrabbled poetry, bring to life characters that were universally American.

He didn’t always play by the rules, and he didn’t always play to the expectations of audiences. What fame he had seemed to come mostly from his screenplay writing and movies made of his plays. He wrote the screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” His play “The Trip to Bountiful” got a best actress Oscar for the late Geraldine Page.

Some critics have had trouble with the way Foote tells the story of the three sisters (and a fourth who’s never seen, but often brought up). The suggestion is that “The Carpetbagger’s Daughters” isn’t really a play, but a series of monologues. While that’s technically true, the work moves like a play, walks like a play and talks like a play. And it has the emotional impact of a play and story, so by my definition it is a play, and a fine, beautiful one at that.

So yes, the three sisters: Cornelia, the practical one, played with exasperation and a certain and affecting lonely reserve by Kimberly Schraf; Grace Anne, the one that got married, played with challenging rue by Nancy Robinette; and Sissie, the baby, played with utterly engaging charm by Holly Twyford. They all take turns pushing the story forward (and sometimes backward) by way of monologues. They are on stage against a dusty, open canvas background, together all of the time, but also apart. They rarely connect through dialogue exchange, but they do react subtly to what is being said and remembered.

The three are the daughters of a Union soldier who returned to the Texas town of Harrison as a carpetbagger after the Civil War’s end, taking on the critical position of tax collector, which allowed him to accumulate property cheaply, and to become an important figure in the cotton-land town over the years.

The monologues are a series of memories about getting from here to there. We never see momma and poppa, but we hear their voices, especially Momma who has by now passed through the gates of dementia.

The timeline takes us—through story and memory—from Reconstruction all the way through World War II, and along the way the usual tribulations occur. Right off the bat, Cornelia recalls the death of another sister, taken home from New Orleans after coming down with a mysterious and eventually fatal illness. Cornelia recalls how the townspeople gathered up straw and laid it down in the streets to prevent the wagon, which carried the sick sister, from jarring.

The story, told matter of factly and with a sad precision, sets the tone. Things never stop happening: Grace Ann, against her father’s wishes, marries a man without sharpness or ambitio. Cornelia takes over the running of the estate. Poppa dies. Sissie marries and becomes a mother. Love is not requited. Children grow up and move away. And Momma cannot figure out whose dead and who’s alive.

The town changes, fortunes are made and lost, and secrets eventually come out. The sisters—through a nod here, a raised eyebrow or head—do indeed communicate. When Twyford takes the stage for the first time as Sissie, the mood becomes light, sunny and sweet. She spreads warmth around through her personality on a family that sometimes badly needs it.

People get older—there are more funerals than weddings—and the land itself is eventually changed. Cornelia recalls telling the sharecroppers that she was giving in to technology and forcing them off the land they had worked for decades.

It seems like a small play because of the structure, perhaps, because of the way the women speak, intimately plowing memory like a farmer plows the land. They are personal stories, broken up by momma’s need to hear Sissie sing “The Clanging Bells of Time” so frequently.

This is the first time that these three actresses have shared a change, which is at once unbelievable and momentous. They live up to the expectations, using the monologues as a connection to each other. There is always “Lear” or “The Three Sisters” to offer a chance to reprise the occasion in a different way.

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