- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Although concerned with love and devotion, Horton Foote’s “Valentine’s Day” is no sweetheart of a play. Even Cupid would be hard-pressed to find something to like — let alone love — about this overwritten, overdetermined doily designed to evoke sweetly scented, wistful memories of small-town life in World War I America.

Unfortunately, any nostalgia the play elicits for the days when folks used polite forms of address and neighbors helped each other is quickly nullified by the all-encompassing torpor of the play and production.

Mr. Foote is an eminent screenwriter (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies”) and playwright (“The Trip to Bountiful” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta”). It defies belief that the man who wrote this play is the same one who created the screen character of “Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch, the top screen hero in film history in the just-announced American Film Institute rankings of celluloid heroes and villains.

“Valentine’s Day” is one of nine plays in his “Orphans’ Home Cycle” that depicts the lives of his parents from 1902 to 1928. No doubt they were charming people, but you wonder if the material is being stretched dangerously.

The play is set in Harrison, Texas, from 1917 to 1918, when Elizabeth Vaughn Robedaux (Michele Osherow) is seriously wooed by Horace (Mark Stevenson), leading to their elopement (her rich daddy disapproves) and tentative first year of marriage. Their adjustment to married life has its winsome moments, but it is hardly full of earth-shattering revelations.

The mind reels at the volume of tedium that might be contained in the other eight plays.

One hopes they do not, like “Valentine’s,” commit the cardinal dramatic sin of telling (over and over again) instead of showing.

Yards of beribboned exposition unspool from the characters’ mouths, putting you in mind of those old-fashioned parlor dramas. You know the ones. The first maid notes, “Lord Farquhar is coming to dinner tonight,” and the other maid says, “Lord Farquhar. You mean the eldest son of the former Lord Farquhar, who died of mysterious circumstances five years ago during the royal hunt, leaving all his wealth and lands to his son, who now hopes to court my mistress, Lady Caroline, who secretly loves him but is afraid of him as well?” And the first maid replies, “Yes, the very same.”

Multiply that by a couple hours, and you have a sense of “Valentine’s Day.” A simple statement by Elizabeth that so-and-so stopped by today leads to a soliloquy by someone within earshot — usually the town drunk, Bobby (John Decker), or the boarding house’s resident busybody, Ruth (Barbara Scheide). They tell you everything about the person except for blood type, which seems all the more inane when you consider that the characters probably know all this already.

Surely a less clunky way to dispense information could have been found.

These conversational byways are deadly enough, but what really stops the play cold is the playwright’s penchant for showing you something, only to have the townspeople then report again and again on what you just saw.

In Act II, a mentally distressed town elder, George Tyler (Jack French), commits a desperate act. Not only do you hear what happened from Horace and Elizabeth, but from neighbor Bessie (Heather Benjamin) as well. Then Elizabeth’s parents walk in, and everyone assembled in the parlor launches into the story all over again.

It’s like “Rashomon” for people with attention-deficit disorder.

The cast appears swamped by all this verbiage and most of the time doesn’t seem to be paying much attention anyway. Some of the players give the impression they are either talking to themselves or zoning out while waiting until they can utter their next line. Granted, things moved at a slower pace in 1917, but did conversation between people contain gaping pauses between utterances?

The actors are further burdened by an overdecorated, multiroom set that resembles a country store crammed to the rafters in anticipation of a big sale. As visually arresting as the World War I Red Cross and war bonds posters are, perhaps a more selective set would have allowed the actors more space to move around.

“Valentine’s Day” is crammed with bric-a-brac and crammed with dialogue. All it needs is a little dramatization and a little theatricality.

*1/2

WHAT: “Valentine’s Day” by Horton Foote

WHERE: Quotidian Theatre, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 29.

TICKETS: $10 to $15

PHONE: 301/816-1023MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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