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The Orphan's Home Cycle (Part 2)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Maggie Lacey and Bill Heck.
Photo by Gregory Constanzo.

"Intense" is not a word typically associated with the plays of Horton Foote. But when discussing the second chapter of the Signature Theatre Company's production of The Orphans' Home Cycle, none other will do.

It's not just that "The Story of a Marriage," as it's delightfully, deceptively titled, is riveting, though it is. Nor is it that it's leaps and bounds better than the first part of the trilogy, which was already one of the finest evenings of theatre New York had seen in 2009, though against all odds it is. It's that Foote has captured so many searing emotions and instances of raw-rubbing truth that this gone-in-a-blink three-hour outing isn't at all about its ostensible subject, the ever-seeking Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck). It's all about you.

After all, who can't relate to loving someone in high demand - but who doesn't quite demand you in return? Or holding feelings forbidden by those whose approval you want most? Or coming so close to happiness only to be stopped by a gulf you can't stop yourself from creating? Horace may be based on Foote's own father, and living in a period of time (1912-1917) that we can barely picture today. But his struggles to achieve romantic, familial, and social love are unbearably real, and his successes - which come somewhat more frequently here than they did in Part One - silently heart-touching.

This is - at least to this point - Foote's ultimate expression of his belief that one person can conquer a shadowy, forbidding world. At first, the going seems as slow for Horace as it did in his growing-up years. Though he's now a man, life is not less complicated. In Act I, "The Widow Claire," he pursues the titular mother of two (Virginia Kull), who's also the subject of several other men's questionable advances. In "Courtship," he's become hopelessly enamored of his childhood friend, Elizabeth Vaughn (Maggie Lacey), but cannot convince her parents to accept him as anything other than the wild, wandering salesman his father's death and mother's abandonment forced him to become. A year after Horace and Elizabeth elope, "Valentine's Day" examines a Christmas holiday in which the pair work to win over her reluctant parents before their own child is born.

That so little plot is traversed and so much is said is part and parcel of Foote. But even the master of darkly dainty stories about the vaguely imaginary Harrison, Texas (in which all three acts here are set), never concocted another work that oscillates between joy and sorrow, obligation and intention, and hot passions and cool demeanors quite as effortlessly as this one does.

Horace's resolve to release Claire from the parental chains in which she's letting herself be bound, Elizabeth's to live as she wants rather than in a way that's chosen for her, and their joint commitment to make their rough-hewn union work for everyone are richly moving as both standalone incidents and the expansion of the long-thwarted desire for connection that's haunted Horace ever since he was a boy (in Part One).

The building of the family Horace will head and the rebuilding of Elizabeth's are two halves of the essence of humanity as Foote envisioned it. And the interplay of those subjects here feel as though they're building the foundation for the transformation from antiquity to modernity that is a governing subject of all Foote's plays. Yet it's presented by director Michael Wilson and his cast so plainly and so affectionately that, though the characters are all fighting against the same basic things (poverty, history, and loneliness chief among them), not a single one ever becomes merely a symbol.

Part Two does not wholly disown the atmosphere of exposition that flooded Part One, but builds on and expands its themes so that you understand, as you couldn't entirely before, the importance of Horace's journey. His losing a father only to find another, being forsaken by his mother and sister only to become the object of another woman's deep sacrifice - the synchronicity taps into the cyclical nature of existence Horace never before realized he could be a part of, and even contribute to. We start to see through his eyes not just how certain pieces of the puzzle fit, but how they all do.

Likewise, the elements of the production interlock so tightly that I'm wary of appraising individual elements for fear of missing something and inadvertently sending the message that anything is less than extraordinary. But in addition to Wilson's laser-precise staging, special mention should be made of set designers Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber, costume designer David C. Woolard, lighting designer Rui Rita, and sound designer John Gromada, who elicit copious details and subtleties from the warmly dusty country, spanning the full palette of colors to depict life at its most verdant crossroads.

The acting, too, is mature and exquisite, and even more fine-tuned than in Part One. Heck expertly blends the experienced itinerant with the novice lover, with losing sight of either's pain. Lacey is sumptuous as Elizabeth, as independent in her constricted way as Horace is in his freer one. Hallie Foote and James DeMarse could not be better as her slow-to-convince but even-slower-to-give-up parents, who take pride in their marriage's success amid the failure of so many others they've known.

What they fail to acknowledge is that it's been their work and commitment that's kept it running, exactly the qualities that Horace and Elizabeth demonstrate to each other in strengthening their own bond during "Courtship." It almost seems as if this collection should be called "The Story of Three Marriages," referring to Horace and Elizabeth, the elder Vaughns, and of the writing and production. All three may be imperfect on some level, but there's no easy way to tell that from the outside.

If there's a flaw in "The Story of a Marriage," it's that seeing it now means you won't immediately learn where Horace, Elizabeth, and their families end up. Were several major holidays not ready to gobble up time, the wait between installments would be unbearable. As it is, the first two-thirds of The Orphans' Home Cycle are their own special gift: a magic mirror that reflects who we all are and where we've come from, and suggests an upcoming destination that might be more potent and powerful still.

The Orphan's Home Cycle
Through March 28
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Signature Theatre Company