There's always been a fine line between earnest family drama and sappy sentimentality, but seldom is that line blurred as much as it is in The Day Emily Married. Horton Foote's play, which just opened at Primary Stages' 59E59 Theatre, vacillates so frequently between those two states that in the blink of an eye you may find you've moved completely from one to the other.
The only thing immediately clear about The Day Emily Married is that it's about the constant war for supremacy between old ways and new ways, between the enterprising minds and the conservative. Whether the battleground is the world of business or a young woman's heart, the effects can be disastrous enough to ensure that no one emerges unscathed.
The confrontation is set in 1955, in the Harrison, Texas home of Lee and Lyd Davis (William Biff McGuire and Estelle Parsons), two elderly parents preparing their only daughter Emily (Hallie Foote) for her second marriage. Her fiancÚ is Richard (James Colby), an oil worker who doesn't mind working hard for his money, but would prefer to get rich quickly. He tries to convince Lee to undertake a questionable oil venture with a man in Houston, while pushing aside Lee's attempts to set him up with steady - but less potentially lucrative - employment.
After Richard insinuates himself into the family and their business ventures, his relentless push for money and progress at any cost - human or otherwise - soon has Lee and Lyd wondering about Richard's true intentions. She's caught in the middle of the confrontation, which begins to play out in an all-too familiar way: Her first husband Ben, well meaning but an alcoholic, quickly fell out of favor with the family, and Richard seems headed down the same road.
There's a fair amount of humor in the play, much of it coming from Lyd, though her addled nature grows more serious as the show progresses, or energetic cousin Alma (Teri Keane), who twinkles with neighborly mischievousness. This play is ultimately a very bleak one, however, with many of its characters mired in hopelessness and despair from which they'll most likely never be able to extricate themselves. While plays can be fashioned around such characters and situations, the concerns must be overarching, not vaguely defined.
That lack of any single stylistic guideline is the play's greatest flaw, and what enables it to be alternately profound and eye-rollingly hokey. What results from the work of Foote and director Michael Wilson is a play in which some scenes feel half a step below The Glass Menagerie, while others feel half a step above Mama's Family. (Foote's incessant recapping of minute plot details, particularly in the second act, suggests even he was having trouble keeping track of what was happening and why.) The physical production at least seems rooted in reality, with Jeff Cowie's homey set, Rui Rita's evocative western lighting, and David C. Woolard's classic-meets-contemporary costumes.
More problematic are the performances, which are never completely in tune with the surrounding play. The most curious comes from Parsons, who's dressed and made up to look something like an elderly 20s flapper living in 1955. Parsons is an accomplished and versatile actress, but doesn't turn out a smoothly defined character here; she's as likely to deliver a moving monologue dredged from the depths of Lyd's encroaching senility as she is to frantically protect her gallery of black-and-white family portraits with an intensity more befitting the needling mother she played on Roseanne.
Much of the acting is of a roughly similar consistency: McGuire's lovably cantankerous Lee can't explode as he needs to when his most cherished belongings are threatened; Ms. Foote brings more confidence and self-assured attractiveness to Emily than are appropriate for the character; and Colby's early scenes aren't sufficiently convincing to make his later violent turnabout effective. The most satisfying performances are given by Keane, shining in her tiny role; Delores Mitchell, as the family's strong and caring servant; and Pamela Payton-Wright, as a neighbor who may pay a tragically high price for Richard's mad cash grab.
But buried beneath all the schizophrenic confusion of the play's competing elements are real pockets of tenable insight. A line like "I wouldn't trade you for anything I've seen yet," while comic, is delivered with such solid truthfulness you can't help but believe it, and one character chillingly perceives another's physical appearance altering with a change in her mental state. Despite the play's foggily realized dramatic ideas and often trite emotional situations, Foote does uncover a handful of persuasive truths here.
It's just unfortunate they're so difficult to find. They become as lost in the unfocused ambitions of Foote and Wilson as the Davises do in a countryside swallowing up houses and families and replacing them with filling stations. Ghosts and memories hang just as heavily over them as the spectre of incompleteness does over the play itself, making The Day Emily Married haunting in all the wrong ways.