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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Beginning of Summer

By Rich See

Where has all that bitterness and anger gone?
---Mamie Borden

Out at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Quotidian Theatre Company is mounting the initial staging of Horton Foote's "lost" play The Beginning of Summer, which is a sequel to his Only the Heart (the latter being his first offering to reach Broadway in 1944). Summer, its sequel, was written in 1955 and never reached Broadway because of Foote and producer Kermit Bloomgarten's other theatrical successes.

Set in Harrison, Texas Only the Heart centered on the loveless marriage of shrewd business woman Mamie Borden whose domineering manner pushes her seventeen-year-old daughter Julia into marrying Albert Price, a young man who works for Mamie and whom the mother greatly admires.

Summer picks up 26 years later, after Mamie has retired and convinced Albert, Julia and their son Borden to move back to Harrison and live with her. (They had fled to Houston years earlier.) Once the couple (their son is away in college) moves back, the bitterness and unhappiness of everyone's lives fills the large and lovely home as Julia flirts with brutish men, Albert drinks heavily and Mamie gives out advice to everyone.

If it seems a bit familiar, it's probably because you're thinking it sounds like an episode of Dallas after Jock died in that helicopter crash over the South American oil fields. To be fair, although its melodramatic underpinnings are much the same, this play was written before Dallas . Add to this its obvious pre-Mothers Against Drunk Drivers groups and you have a time capsule of American culture. The handling of adultery, spousal abuse and violence are some of its the most interesting aspects. Kind of like watching old episodes of Bewitched or The Dick Van Dyke Show -- people smoke without apology and then drink straight bourbon in a half-full tumbler before staggering to their car to drive to dinner. It's a way of life we don't really see too much of nowadays, except perhaps on college campuses.

Set entirely during one watershed night in the Borden-Price home, Summer has Julia and Albert fighting over the state of their marriage just as friends Preston and Opal Murray arrive to go dancing. Once the row is smoothed over, everyone drinks heavily and quickly before jumping into a car to head over to "the dance." Meanwhile, Mamie and neighbor Sooney Davis sit and chat while Sooney visits with young Borden Price who is home for a few days before going back to college. Within the short time frame we realize that Sooney raised Julia while Mamie worked obsessively, Borden has spent his childhood at military school, Julia is a constant flirt with other men and when Albert drinks too much he becomes violent as he did a year ago when Mamie was visiting her sister and Julia had to take refuge in Sooney's home.

Thus, Sooney is no fan of Albert's and Mamie is shocked by Albert's violent streak which she had no knowledge about. As the two older women fret, Albert arrives with a blood soaked handkerchief and rants about getting his gun and killing Julia. It seems that Julia doesn't just flirt with the other men...

Apparently Preston and Julia were having an affair and Preston has decided the two of them must run away together. While Albert has decided the two of them must die. Opal, meanwhile, urges Albert to violence as neighbor Jack Deveraux (ironically the name of a character from Days of Our Lives) is sent out to find Albert and keep him from doing anything rash.

This is where that pre-Anger Management Therapy/Mayberry R.F.D. culture comes into play -- no one calls the sheriff and everyone blames the new people in town, the Murrays. Even poor Opal, who seems to be a candidate for a women's shelter.

Director Jack Sbarbori and his cast bring the time period to elaborate life. The staging is deliberate and languidly paced, much like life can be at times. With Mr. Foote's writing and Mr. Sbarbori's set, the entire piece seems like we are peeking into the living room of a neighbor family on the verge of collapse. And much like eavesdropping, we at times wish the neighbors would get to the good parts a bit more quickly.

Kathleen Newton's costumes are vintage, although one or two choices are not the best for the actor's who are wearing them.

The cast does an admirable job. Jane Squier Bruns' Mamie Borden is alternately grandmotherly and manipulating. Jack LaRocque brings out the threat in Albert Price who seems long suffering, yet we realize has a few skeletons in his closet. Stephanie Mumford's Julia gives the impression of a woman entering middle age and still pining for her youth. And Ted Schneider is a brutish and inappropriate Preston Murray. While we sympathize with Sherry Tyra's long suffering Opal, but we don't understand why she has remained with the her husband. Beatrice Judge's Sooney Davis is wonderfully sweet and Tim Phelps' mannerism and speech give the impression of a young man who has spent most of his life at military school.

Mr. Foote has a great talent for capturing the essence and time of a place and its people. The fact that this type of evening is still played out in homes -- and on network TV -- is a testament to the play's timeless themes.

The Beginning of Summer by Horton Foote
Directed by Jack Sbarbori
with Jane Squier Bruns, Steve LaRocque, Stephanie Mumford, Tim Phelps, Sherry Tyra, Ted Schneider, Beatrice Judge, and David VanOrmer
Set and Sound Design: Jack Sbarbori
Costume Design: Kathleen Newton
Lighting Design: Don Slater
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of Quotidian Theatre Company
Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda
Telephone: 301-816-1023
FRI - SAT @8, SUN @2; $15 - $20
Opening 10/21/05, closing 11/20/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 10/23/05 performance
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