Voices are raised with uncommon frequency in “The Day Emily Married,” the new play by Horton Foote at Primary Stages. The kind of high-pitched emotional jousting that peppers the play would not be particularly striking in the world of, say, David Mamet, but Foote has generally been a writer who eschews stage-friendly scenes of conflict in favor of depicting the mild everyday interaction between friends and family that belies sometimes scorching feeling underneath. Raising the volume a notch or two, Foote sometimes sounds a bit strained, like a singer who specializes in a soft croon lapsing into a Broadway belt.
The longtime chronicler of a genteel social milieu in small-town Texas that’s hovering on the verge of extinction, Foote specializes in delicate character studies in sepia tones. The folks in “The Day Emily Married” initially appear to be whipped up from Foote’s usual pattern book, living in a cozy house, atmospherically rendered by designer Jeff Cowie, soon to be surrounded by filling stations. The year is 1955, and the homestead is the last residential holdout on the old highway.
Estelle Parsons plays mother Lyd Davis, “Belle” to her adoring husband. Lyd is slightly addled and slightly spoiled, and wraps herself in crocheted shawls and fond memories of her upbringing as a governor’s granddaughter.
The faded family photographs she dotes on have become a bone of contention between Lyd and her plain-Jane daughter, Emily (Hallie Foote), who has come back home to be married — again. The gangly Emily will come to bear a mild resemblance to a grown-up Laura Wingfield, empowered at last to exact some emotional revenge on the overbearing mama who tried obliviously to turn her ugly duckling into a swan.
Emily’s new fiance, Richard (James Colby), is looking to retire from the oil-rig business with some financial help from Emily’s father, Lee (William Biff McGuire), himself set on getting out of farming before his bum ticker gives out for good. He sees Richard’s ambitious business plan as a way of insuring a modest income for them all.
The knotty relationships of these four characters provide the play with plenty of emotional tinder.
Horton Foote, best at sketching characters in gentle watercolor strokes, occasionally breaks out more saturated colors here, bringing into the foreground recriminations and cruelties that his better plays more gently reveal. Transitions between emotional states often are curiously abrupt; scraps of exposition poke up somewhat awkwardly through the play’s unusually knotty fabric.
The shorthand Foote sometimes resorts to, and the accumulation of confrontations that flood the second act, are probably a byproduct of overplotting — an uncharacteristic flaw in his work. Complex matters of family history and financial health preclude the kind of meticulous, unhurried observation that is normally Foote’s stock-in-trade.
Richard urges Lee to call in a long-standing debt held by a neighbor, causing the debtor’s distraught wife (the fine Pamela Payton-Wright, a trifle overwrought) to make a desperate visit.
A certain lady from Richard’s past plays a significant role in the proceedings, through the somewhat contrived conceit of a telegram revealing his apparent perfidy.
That perfidy is confirmed in one of the more starkly dramatic scenes, in which the previously gently spoken Richard drops his easygoing mask and laces into Lyd, whom he excoriates as a self-centered harridan who has strangled the life out of her family. Meanwhile, frequent allusions to illness, mental and physical, darkly hint that not everybody will survive the second act.
It all seems to be enough fodder for a trilogy of Foote plays, uncomfortably shoe-horned into one. The play sags but never snaps under the weight of this burden, thanks to the committed work of its unfailingly engaging cast, even if Michael Wilson’s direction cannot always smooth over the text’s rougher spots.
Parsons, speaking in a sugary but slightly acidic bleat, perfectly captures the sense of complacent self-delusion that allows Lyd to manipulate her husband and daughter while maintaining an air of emotional magnanimity. Less clearly delineated in the writing are the roots of an inward despair that sends her down to the riverbed at regular intervals.
McGuire sensitively conveys the hidden anguish that plagues Lee, who loves his wife and daughter almost too much to do what’s best for them. Hallie Foote turns in another effectively quiet performance that suggests complicated layers beneath the flat affect of her character, while Colby, in a role that tips uncomfortably into melodrama, does his best to smooth out the contradictions of a character who would be more at home in another play. This deceptive cad deserves a truly Southern Gothic cage — Foote doesn’t really know how to tame such beasts.