A cloud of sadness looms over The Story of a Family, the third and final installment in The Orphans’ Home Cycle — and it’s palpable even before the play’s funereal beginning. It signals that Horton Foote’s sublime trilogy is coming to a close; these are our last three hours with Horace Robedaux. Many of us have watched him grow from a sixth-grade dropout into a self-made businessman, from fatherless child to husband and father-to-be. Anyone who’s seen Part 1: The Story of a Childhood or Part 2: The Story of a Marriage — neither of which are prerequisites for Family, by the way — has undoubtedly become extremely attached to Horace (Bill Heck, underplaying admirably), his selfless wife, Elizabeth (the lovely Maggie Lacey), his first-frosty-but-later-welcoming in-laws, the Vaughns (James DeMarse and Hallie Foote), and all their busybody kinfolk, friends, and neighbors.
The church bell tolls ominously throughout 1918, the curtain-raiser of part 3, an ever-present reminder of the worldwide influenza pandemic that was burning its way through tiny Harrison, Texas. The on-stage funeral procession — which, with its muted colors and warm light refracted in the rain, recalls an impressionist painting — seems never-ending. It’s inevitable that the flu will strike a mortal blow to our Horace and his family. (That’s just how things work in Foote’s world. Even the best men face obstacle after obstacle, their character constantly put to the test.) The second act, Cousins, offers little more than comic relief — everyone’s always asking who’s related to whom and how, and it seems everyone is someone’s cousin in some way — but it’s a structural necessity, reintroducing Horace’s mom, step-dad, sister, brother-in-law…and spinster cousin Minnie (Virginia Kull), who pops into Horace’s haberdashery to do a bit of philosophizing: ”A family is a remarkable thing, isn’t it? You belong. And then you don’t. It passes you by. Unless you start a family of your own.” In the final entry, The Death of Papa, we meet 9-year-old Horace Jr. (Dylan Riley Snider, who also played young Horace in part 1). Here at last is the playwright’s stand-in, and as you might expect from the future Horton Foote, the boy always has his nose stuck in a book. So now, by Minnie’s definition, Horace belongs to a family. The orphan is no longer.
After nine hours of The Orphans’ Home Cycle, it seems ungrateful to want more: There are, after all, nine plays and three productions on display at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre; director Michael Wilson and his 22-member cast have done remarkable work, imbuing Foote’s epic piece with a delicate intimacy. Even though you can always go back to visit — parts 1?3 rotate in repertory through March 28 — it’s hard to leave Home. Grade: A
(Tickets: signaturetheatre.org or 212-244-7529)