Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle, at the Signature Theatre in a co-production with Hartford Stage, continues to impress. Part Two, subtitled “The Story of a Marriage,” builds on the excellent groundwork laid out in the first segment of this three-part, nine-play epic as it tells the story of Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck), who leaves behind his troubled boyhood and embarks upon life with his wife, Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey).
The evening incorporates the three plays The Widow Claire, Courtship, and Valentine’s Day, with each section drawing a fine and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of small-town Texas life in the early part of the twentieth century. In the first act, Horace courts the recently widowed Claire Ratliff (Virginia Kull). However, Claire has several other suitors, including the physically violent Val Stanton (Lucas Caleb Rooney), and Horace’s own position in the pecking order is in doubt.
Heck beautifully demonstrates the capacity to showcase a tremendous depth of feeling, even while outwardly his Horace does very little besides exchanging polite words with those around him. There’s a buried passion that Horace doesn’t seem to know how to let out, and a fierce yearning for something more than he possesses.
In the Courtship section, Horace is more self-assured as he makes a play for what he really wants: the hand of Elizabeth in marriage, despite the objections of Elizabeth’s parents (James DeMarse and Hallie Foote). But while Horace succeeds in his goal, the third act shows him still struggling with doubt and the legacy of a lonely childhood as he and Elizabeth eke out an existence while living in a crowded boarding house with some rather peculiar neighbors.
There are moments in the script, particularly in Valentine’s Day, that teeter on the brink of sentimentality. But Foote wisely undercuts this with a dark sense of humor, as well as a lingering sadness that makes whatever joy the characters experience seem, at best, bittersweet. Foote also includes some odd non-sequiturs in his dialogue that relieves the tension in certain moments, and provides several laughs, as well.
Lacey does a fine job as Elizabeth, although could stand to bring out more of the underlying passions that rage underneath her lady-like mannerisms. Hallie Foote continues to be a skilled interpreter of her father’s work, bringing out nuances with lines that seem almost thrown away. DeMarse nicely portrays the genuine paternal concern that softens the blow of some of his character’s initial condemnation of the Horace-Elizabeth match, and which makes his eventual reconciliation with Horace all the more touching.
Devon Abner does a superb job as Roger Culpepper in The Widow Claire, presenting a socially awkward man that others merely think dim. Annalee Jefferies does wonders with the rather small part of Lucy in Courtship, conveying large amounts of information (and humor) through her facial expressions. Some of the other supporting roles — particularly Horace’s friends at the boarding house in the first act — aren’t brought to life with as much finesse. But even with a few performances that don’t live up to the material, the overall quality of the evening remains at a very high level.