Review: 'Carpetbagger's Children' spill Reconstruction-era family's secrets

By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 8:00 PM

The old divisions are still alive in Horton Foote's "The Carpetbagger's Children," a tale spun by three grown sisters looking back over their fractious lives. There's North vs. South, of course; the long-dead father was an opportunistic Union soldier who zealously guarded the cotton-growing Texas acreage he acquired during Reconstruction. But there's also juicier drama as the sisters' lives quietly blow up over the course of the family's all-too-human civil wars.

So while "The Carpetbagger's Children" unfolds at Ford's Theatre in Foote's understated style, you lean forward as these sisters subtly begin to dish the dirt. Cornelia, the apparently practical one - the one who runs the father's estate - isn't above blithely demeaning her elder sister, Grace Anne, as instinctively jealous. Grace Anne's the outsider: She eloped against her daddy's wishes, and director Mark Ramont places her in a rocking chair slightly off to the side in this inconspicuous but smartly plotted staging.

Meanwhile, Sissie, the youngest, spills the beans about all kinds of family shenanigans, including a murder that gets explained away by the perpetrator (who just might marry into the family) as self-defense. The dead uncle in question was said to have wielded a butcher knife.

The tendency among playwrights younger than Foote, who died two years ago at 92, would be to make antic mayhem of this clan's tangled affairs, with the other likely option being to open the spigot of sentiment. "The Carpetbagger's Children" operates in an appealing middle ground: It's lyrical, but with bite. The memories that come tumbling forth in these monologues are both fond and fraught as only family infighting can be.

That you come to know as many figures in this household as you do in 90 minutes is a tribute to the storytelling ability of the actresses. The 2001 play is a series of monologues, so all three performers - Kimberly Schraf as Cornelia, Nancy Robinette as Grace Anne, and Holly Twyford as Sissie - have long chunks of stage time for solo spellbinding. The stern father, the adored dead sister, the hard-luck brother and more pop to life as the gossip flies - gossip or history, depending on the seriousness of the moment.

Twyford's Sissie is the most gossipy. Her rendition of a family gathering that features the girls' addled mother and a man who may be casting an affectionate eye on Cornelia is a comic feast, with Twyford's vibrant comic gifts neatly illuminating Sissie's exuberant charm.

Schraf is efficient and businesslike as Cornelia, who sees herself as the conduit of their father's wishes, yet the actress gracefully offers one of those still-waters-run-deep turns. Robinette's Grace Anne comes across as both the strongest and weakest: Grace Anne paid the price for bucking her father's wishes, and the wounded defiance Robinette brings to the role is the stuff of quiet tragedy.

Ford's is a good spot for this show, not only for the era the historic room evokes but because the theater's director, Paul R. Tetrault, produced the play's world premiere when he was the managing director of Houston's Alley Theatre. Foote had an ear for the stories people like to tell about themselves: Tales of weddings and feuds, inheritances and squanderings - and the deliveries are rich here. The actresses catch all the shades - funny, touching, tart, forlorn - with Schraf, Robinette and Twyford meticulously rendering the small-town sisters and vividly populating the chronicle.

Nelson Pressley is a freelance writer.

The Carpetbagger's Children by Horton Foote. Directed by Mark Ramont. Costumes, Helen Huang; original music and sound design, Matthew M. Nielson. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 13 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-397-7328, 800-637-7000 or visit

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