When we last left our intrepid Texan hero, Horace Robedaux (Bill Keck), at the end of the superb part 1 of Horton Foote’s epic nine-play The Orphans Home Cycle — don’t worry if you haven’t seen part 1, it’s still running at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, and it’s not a prerequisite for part 2 — he was on a train, being prayed over by busybody Baptist Mrs. Coons (Pamela Payton Wright). Over the course of the first three plays, Horace saw his father die of alcoholism and his mother remarry a man who despised him but loved his sister; he was shipped off to a plantation to work alongside convicts for a paranoid plantation owner; and as a grown man, he was shunned again by his own family. As Mrs. Coons asks, ”Father of mercy!” Please let something good happen to poor Horace!
By the end of the sixth play, Valentine’s Day, Horace (Bill Heck) is in a boarding-house rented room in fictional Harrison, Tex., on Christmas Eve and finally finds a little piece of genuine joy. Or, as his crusty father-in-law (James DeMarse, a study in purse-lipped perfection) calls it, ”contentment.” Horace realizes it when he gazes upon his wife, Elizabeth (an incandescent Maggie Lacey), and dares to dream of ”fig trees, pecan trees, pear trees, peach trees,” of having a house and a garden and a pen filled with chickens: ”I am no orphan, but I think of myself as an orphan, belonging to no one but you,” he begins, almost angrily. ”And I do believe I will have these things, because you married me…and I tell you I’ve begun to know happiness for the first time in my life. I adore you. I worship you…and I thank you for marrying me.”
Foote uses monologues sparingly — he favors more languid, chatty exchanges — but Horace’s speech (only a small part of which is quoted here) must be the most heart-wrenching lines the playwright ever penned, beautifully unadorned, delivered by Heck with unneeded flourish or false sincerity.
It does take a couple hours, however, to arrive at that blissful newlywed moment. Part 2’s curtain raiser, The Widow Claire, gets the evening off to a slightly rocky start — through no fault of the actors or director Michael Wilson. The play moves in fits and starts, in some measure because it relies on 9- and 10-year-old children — Molly (Emily Robinson) and Buddy (Dylan Riley Snyder, who played young Horace in part 1) — to bolt on and off stage to advance the plot. The kids belong to ”the widow Claire” (Virginia Kull), who is dating three men: Horace, traveling salesman ”Uncle Ned,” and abusive drunkard Val (Lucas Caleb Rooney); she’s even entertaining marriage proposals from the latter two. All this vital information we learn from the kids. (Foote loves to reveal expository details via children, alcoholics, and the elderly — they have no censors, after all — and he employs the tactic liberally in Valentine’s Day to relate the story of Horace and Elizabeth’s marriage.)
In the second play, Courtship, part 2 finds its rhythm, as we learn about strong-willed Elizabeth and her overprotective dad (he’s hell-bent on keeping her from Horace). The play is also vintage Foote: Sisters whisper on the porch about who wore ”low-cut princess style” and who wore ”pale green chiffon” to the dance, while relatives gossip in the parlor (”Poor Cousin Myrtis Williams is back in the asylum”). And Valentine’s Day throws in a little bit of everything — drunks, family feuds, buried hatchets, loopy old ladies, hymns, remembrances of things past, dreams of futures yet to come. The Story of a Marriage is a veritable potpourri of Foote’s trademark characters and themes. It’s impossible not to grow fond of these folks; it’s a comfort to know that many of them will be back in part 3, The Story of a Family, which opens next month (and will rotate in repertory with parts 1 and 2); and it’s sad to know that Horace’s happiness won’t last forever. Yet it would be criminal to miss any of this epic journey. Grade: B+
(Tickets: signaturetheatre.org or 212-244-PLAY)