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A CurtainUp Review
The Day Emily Married

He lied. He lied. He lied. . .But I guess we lied too. I guess we all lied to ourselves and to each other.
--- Emily about the husband who has proved yet another cause of unhappiness in a life of disappointments.
Hallie Foote & Estelle Parsons
Hallie Foote & Estelle Parsons
(Photo: Jonathan Barkey)
Manhattan's newest and very up-to-date 59E59 Theater is currently offering New Yorkers an old-fashioned, midsummer treat as refreshing a change from being tethered to high tech gadgetry and unnerved by high level terror alerts as a double scoop cone from the Coldstone Creamery. Not that The Day Emily Gets Married is a happily ever after nostalgia trip.

The stories of the citizens of Harrison, Texas Horton Foote has been chronicling over a long and fruitful stage and screen writing career that includes a Pulitzer Prize (Young Man From Atlanta) and two Oscars (the original screenplay for Tender Mercies and the adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird) are full of melancholy ruminations on the unbearable loneliness of life and the complex relationships woven into the fabric of the folksy, leisurely paced life in towns like Harrison -- as is true of life any time, anywhere.

Mr. Foote is fortunate that his latest visit to that very Southern Texas town (50 miles southwest of Houston and 40 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico) that has been the seedbed for his remarkably productive oeuvre is steered by Michael Wilson who also directed his last Harrison saga, The Carpetbagger's Children. He's double blessed that this 1955 era play features several actors who have memorably portrayed other Harrisonians: His daughter Hallie Foote as the thirty-eight-year old title character, Estelle Parsons and William Biff McGuire as the parents who love her truly but not wisely.

As with previous Foote plays, don't expect any big plot surprises. The flaws in the picture of the close-knit Davis family and the promising second marriage of the previously unhappily wed Emily are the stuff of at times soap opera-like pathos and predictability. What holds your attention and engages your sympathy is not what happens, but how Foote's characters unpack the neediness that sharpens the faded photo album view of a by-gone era into a more pitch-black close-up.

Some theater goers may not appreciate the way Foote keeps mining the same vein, gnawing at the bone dug from the Texas soil; but there's something wonderful about an octogenarian still finding meat on that bone he's been gnawing with quiet persistence and creating juicy roles for older actors. The pleasure of The Day Emily Married comes from the unobtrusive excellence Foote still extracts from that bone and what the actors do with the roles he's written for them.

As the apparent contentment in the home of Lyd (Estelle Parsons) and Lee Davis (William Biff McGuire) turns out to be deceptive, so is the title. The Day Emily Married begins as thirty-eight-year-old Emily (Hallie Foote) is about to take another stab at marriage with Richard Murray (James Colby) an attractive and ambitious young man. It could easily have been called The Summer Emily Learned that You Can't Go Home Again as it skips past the wedding day to the aftermath that reveals cracks in that wedding day's promise of a brighter future (Emily's first husband though also attractive was an unreliable drunk and her divorce from him was followed by several lonely years of working at an inconsequential job in Houston).

It doesn't take long to see why Emily is more hesitant than her husband-to-be to accept her father's offer for them to settle in the family homestead. The older man has worked harder than a man who's had two heart attacks should and his beloved wife has become mentally frail. He feels the presence of the young couple will enable him to take it easy and be good for Lyd and is therefore willing to set Richard (currently an underpaid employee at an oil company) up in business.

Unsurprisingly, Emily yields to her father's and Richard's wishes and a month after the wedding the reasons for her hesitancy become increasingly well-founded. Her parents may dote on her but too controllingly so, apparently a factor in the unhappy first marriage. As for Richard, his love also reveals warts that Emily, blinded by loneliness, ignored.

The younger as well as older actors move in and out of the Davis home as if, like their creator, they'd been raised there. Hallie Foote manages to convey both frailty and strength. Though at first showing some of the emotional vulnerability of The Glass Menagerie's Laura, she also displays a sturdier, more self-analytic strain that has her ruefully wondering "why a girl who has never really considered herself very attractive always felt she had to have a handsome husband" and suggests that she will finally stop trying to become a social butterfly in her mother's image and enter any new relationship from strength rather than desperate loneliness.

Even more reminiscent of The Glass Menagerie is Estelle Parson's seventy-eight-year-old Lyd. She's frozen in the past via her flapper era dress and bobbed hair and the parlor photo gallery which includes distinguished forebears and a picture of young Emily being groomed with ballet lessons to repeat her mother's youthful social triumphs.

William Biff McGuire gives a finely nuanced performance as the worn-out farmer who's coddled Lyd every day of their marriage and interfered too much in his daughter's life. James Colby's Richard, also turns out to be more complex than the man who seems everything Emily's never seen but much mentioned first husband, Ben, was not. The only surprise about Richard's ambition turned ugly is that Colby manages to shift gears quite convincingly.

The appearances of neighbors (Teri Keane as Lyd's gossipy neighbor and cousin and Pamela Payton-Wright making an agonized plea for her tenant farmer husband's long-standing debt to be extended) serves to deepen the effect of a highway eroding a community's sense of living peacefully in a place meant to be home "forever." And of course no old-fashioned Southern play would be complete without a devoted maid (Delores Mitchell).

Jeff Cowie, David A. Woolard and Rui Rita -- all veterans of Foote's Harrison chronicles -- have once again created authentic scenery, costumes and lighting. If there are disappointments it's that the photos come off the parlor wall and back on just a bit too predictably, that the natural ending is topped by an unnecessarily grim and contrived finale.

To conclude, if Foote's latest return trip to his beloved Harrison doesn't break any new ground or provide particularly fresh insights on the fears that follow us wherever we live out our lives, it's a chance to see an old-fashioned drama with a generously sized cast of actors whose place on the program roster was not determined by their familiarity to popular television show watchers.

The Last of the Thorntons
The Young Man From Atlanta
The Carbetbagger's Children

Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Michael Wilson
Cast: Estelle Parsons (Lyd Davis "Belle"), James Colby (Richard Murray), Hallie Foote (Emily), William Biff McGuire (Lee Davis), Terri Keane (Alma Nash), Delores Mitchell (Addie) , Pamela Payton-Wright (Maud Cleveland).
Set Design: Jeff Cowie
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Sound & Composition Design: Andre Pluess
Prop Master: Laurie Marvald
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, includes intermission
Primary Stages, 59 East 59th Street, 212/840-9705
7/21/04 to 8/29/04; opening 8/03/04.
Tue at 7pm; Wed - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm.
Tickets $55.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on August 4 performance

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