“The Story of a Marriage” (Part Two of the trilogy “The Orphans’ Home Cycle”)

--Irene Backalenick

Horton Foote makes heavy demands on theatergoers, if they are to attend all three works of his trilogy now playing at Hartford Stage. This actually comprises nine dramas, since the acts in each play are entities unto themselves. Defined appropriately as an epic, the trilogy follows the fortunes of three interrelated families over three decades, beginning at the turn of the last century. And, under the direction of Artistic Director Michael Wilson, 22 actors play out some 70 roles.

Yet Foote’s style is so light, so accessible, that even when dealing with conflict and tragedy, his offerings go down as smoothly as ice cream. One hardly notices the passage of hours.  
“The Orphans Home Cycle,” which Foote began in the ‘70s and completed shortly before his death several months ago, is essentially autobiographical. It reaches back into the history of his immediate and extended family.

Centering on his own father, depicted here as Horace Robedaux, the first play (titled “The Story of a Childhood”) covers Robedaux’s early years. The second (“The Story of a Marriage”) follows Robedaux through young adulthood, and the last (“The Story of a Family”) moves into the next generation.

The middle piece, “The Story of a Marriage,” (attended by this reviewer) looks at his parents’ courtship and marriage. Opening in 1912 in Foote’s imaginary town of Harrison (a stand-in for Foote’s own Wharton, Texas), it follows the adventures of the 20-year-old Horace. This sensitive, idealistic young man is painted in glowing colors. After the disappointing pursuit of a pretty widow, he eventually finds the girl of his dreams—Elizabeth Vaughan—whom he marries despite her parents’ objections.

The drama presents the couple’s early years and their idyllic marriage. No doubt the years which separate past and present contribute to Foote’s slanted view of his forebears. Yet the playwright endows his characters with such folksy realism that one forgives this tendency to idealize. The first two acts focus in on the hero’s dilemmas, and steadily build in intensity. But the third act, alas, is weakened by byways, as it sketches numerous small town characters not immediately relevant to the plot.

Yet Wilson is clearly devoted to the playwright and his material, and directs with a sure hand. And Wilson, like Foote himself, has a strong sense of place. This is a convincing depiction of small town life in east Texas. The first act, in particular, has the charm of an old sepia photograph (owing much to the design team--Jeff Cowie and David Barber (set), Rui Rita (lighting), and David C. Woolard (costumes).

A fine, substantial cast is topped by Bill Heck as Horace, Maggie Lacey as Elizabeth, and Virginia Kull as the widow Claire. And James DeMarse is memorable as Elizabeth’s unyielding father. Hallie Foote (an esteemed actress who is the foremost interpreter of her father’s work), plays Elizabeth’s mother. But the stiff character she portrays in this second play allows little scope for her considerable skills.

So much for minor quibbles.  Undoubtedly this trilogy, as so much of Horton Foote’s work, will continue to have appeal for years to come.

This review appears shortly in the Connecticut Post and on nytheaterscene.com

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