When the curtain goes up on The Day Emily Married next weekend, many of Washington’s most passionate theatergoers will be there to cheer the Quotidian Theatre Company for its 24 years of bringing finely wrought drama to the DC stage.
The company, which began in 1997 with the world premiere of the Horton Foote play, is ending on the same high note. Stephanie Mumford, Quotidian’s co-founder, played the role of Emily in the original production, while Jack Sbabori, her husband and co-founder, was its director.
Starring in this production of Emily—once again directed by Sbabori—is Jane Squier Bruns, a grande dame of the DC theater scene who has reigned over nearly every Horton Foote play at Quotidian since 2005. (Some of her recent roles include A Coffin in Egypt and Night Seasons.)
In this revival of The Day Emily Married, Bruns once again plays the role of a matriarch who is unaware that her power has begun to ebb.
Although the character is called Lyd, it’s pronounced Lyde (as in “yes, she lied to me, all the time”); and, true to her name, she is bent on bending the truth to keep those around her under her thrall. These include her husband, Lee, who is not as innocent as she thinks.
Lyd thinks of Emily—the 38-year-old divorced daughter of the title—as younger than her years, pretty, popular, and facing a life that is chock full of possibilities. Emily, on the other hand, sees herself as clumsy and unattractive, a victim of her mother’s ploys; in her mind, she is still the child whose mother insisted on dressing her like a china doll.
The play begins when Emily’s suitor, Richard, arrives to meet her parents, who are determined to have the younger couple move in with them. Emily knows it’s a mistake, but is unable to resist.
“All the characters are complicated,” Bruns began, when we met for coffee at a sidewalk café in Bethesda, adding that the playwright—Horton Foote, who is often considered the American Checkhov—believed that all human beings are intrinsically flawed.
“There are no good guys or bad guys in this play,” she said. “Everyone exhibits personality traits that are simultaneously kind and cruel.”
In fact, the biggest challenge in playing the role, she pointed out, is its duality. “I’m portraying a woman who is both Pollyanna-ish in its extreme—someone who projects a distorted image of all around her—yet is capable of evoking sympathy.
“Lyd is both powerful and frail, a wisp of a woman”—like Bruns herself—“yet unaware of the harm she inflicts on those she believes she loves.”
The play is set in the mythical town of Harrison, Texas, a pseudonym for the town where Foote himself grew up. (The New York Times, in its review of the 2004 production—starring Estelle Parsons as Lyd—likened it to Peyton Place as a place seething with half-buried scandals.)
I asked Bruns how she got into theater, and she laughed. Despite a degree in drama from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she got sidetracked, first by marriage and children, then by politics and TV.
She and her first husband, TV director Bob Squier, moved to Washington, where both worked as media consultants in Hubert Humphrey’s failed presidential campaign of 1968. Subsequently, they formed their own company, specializing in TV production for political organizations.
Fast-forward a few years to 1975 when, newly divorced, the would-be actress was a soccer mom, cheering on her son’s team at a Gaithersburg playground when someone handed her a flyer. It was for an audition at Montgomery Playhouse, one of the most prestigious community theaters in Maryland. It took a month or so to muster up the courage, but then she decided to try out.
“The play was La Ronde,” she reminisced. “And the director said to me, ‘Where have you been?’ I’ll never forget those words,” she said. She got the part.
Since then, she’s been acting full time, moving easily between TV commercials and the stage, with occasional small roles in network TV. A longtime member of SAG, she particularly loves musicals.
In 1983, she was playing the lead in Pajama Game, opposite an actor named Donald Bruns. And while she had always fallen in love with whoever happened to be playing her leading man, this time it lasted. Eventually, they married; 38 years later, they’re still together, onstage and off.
After that, they moved to St. Louis where, for 16 years, she hosted TV morning shows and taught at a local college. In 1995 they returned to the DC area and community theater.
Two years later, The Day Emily Married had its world premiere and Quotidian Theatre was launched. That first show was at Silver Spring Stage. The company subsequently moved to its present (and final) location, the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.
For Mumford, Quotidian’s co-founder, the current show is a perfect bookend to the company’s long history of producing often overlooked plays.
Although written in 1954—and optioned for Broadway that year by the legendary producer Kermit Bloomgarden—the play was somehow dropped. It languished in the stacks of the Library of Congress until the 1990s, when it was discovered, along with 13 other unproduced Foote plays, by Sbabori, who then got permission from Foote to produce and direct it.
Mumford, who has worked heroically over the years as chief administrator of the company—with occasional acting stints in beween—describes the company’s farewell production as “a labor of love and a tribute to Jack.” The two have been married for 35 years.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
The Day Emily Married by Horton Foote, presented bt Quotidian Theatre, plays August 6 through August 29, 2021, inside The Writer’s Center at 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD. To purchase tickets, click here.
On Saturday, August 14, following the 8 pm performance of The Day Emily Married, there will be a special talk-back with Gerald C. Wood, a retired English professor who is one of the world’s leading authorities on the playwright. Wood will show clips from his recent interview with Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, who is an acclaimed actress and one of the world’s leading interpreters of her father’s work.
Addie, Davis family housekeeper: Star Bobatoon
Emily Davis, only child of Lyd and Lee Davis: Roxanne Fournier Stone
Lyd Davis, Emily’s mother: Jane Squier Bruns
Richard Murray, Emily’s fiancé/husband: Andrew Greenleaf
Lee Davis, Emily’s father: John Decker
Alma Nash, Emily’s cousin: Elizabeth Darby
Maud Cleveland, Davis family friend/tenant farmer: Laura Russell
Director: Jack Sbarbori
Stage Manager: Douglas Maryott
Set Design: Jack Sbarbori
Costume Design: Stephanie Mumford
Lighting Design: Don Slater