It's a hot night in Texas, and Albert, a glum, rich businessman, is out to murder Julia, his bored, recklessly lusty wife. Albert's had way too much to drink, and now he's got a gun.
"He's trying to kill me!" Julia shrieks, and the women of this 1950s household tremble with fear, uttering lines about how they tremble with fear. This is fevered Southern gothic at its drawling, hand-wringing worst -- a long summer night of an iguana on a hot tin roof, or something like that. It's not exactly what we've come to expect from the cool head of Horton Foote, lauded for his fine-grained portrayals of unexceptional people in works such as "The Trip to Bountiful" and the Pulitzer-winning "The Young Man From Atlanta."
Yet Foote it is, circa 1955, in a previously unproduced play called "The Beginning of Summer." Bethesda's Quotidian Theatre Company, Foote aficionados of the first rank, have secured the rights to present an "initial staging" of this work. Presumably the "world premiere" will be presented by more accomplished hands.
That's what it will take to make a compelling case for this drama, the middle play of a trilogy involving the hard-shelled Mamie Borden, Julia's mother. The first act is fueled by liquor and then the threat of bloodshed; it's crude and repetitive, but it could probably be rendered entertaining by a pack of prowling, predatory actors.
Director Jack Sbarbori's cast isn't quite up to it, though, when it comes time to hurl bar stools and grapple in the den (an overcrowded hothouse full of black lacquer furnishings in Sbarbori's traffic-jamming set design). Exactly how the frail, aging Mamie (Jane Squier Bruns) is supposed to plausibly restrain the drunk and vengeful Albert (Steve LaRocque) for minutes on end is something Sbarbori and the actors haven't quite worked out. Onstage at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, it looks like they're doing it just because it says so in the addled script.
Everybody fares better in the second act, when dawn approaches and Foote's mellowing characters begin to work their way toward reconciliation. (It's a long night for them -- and for us.) Sins are confessed and expiated as everyone ruminates on the bitter wasted years and the fact that things people do at 17 they often regret at 44. That's Julia's tune, and Albert's, thanks in part to Mamie's meddling. Now their son, Borden, is at a crossroads, too.
As Julia, Stephanie Mumford isn't remotely convincing as a love-starved figure desperately sashaying and flirting like something out of Tennessee Williams. But Mumford's patient work in the second act is pretty good -- sad-eyed and pensive, finding the notes that help guide the story toward its unlikely warm conclusion. The rest of the cast follows in the same mold: passable at head-in-the-hands reminiscences but often burned when the heat gets turned up. It's not easy for these Foote cultists to be flamboyantly theatrical; they're more comfortable being, well, quotidian. And in this case, quotidian isn't enough.
The Beginning of Summer, by Horton Foote. Directed by Jack Sbarbori. Lighting design, Don Slater; costumes, Kathleen Newton. With Tim Price, Sherry Tyra, Ted Schneider, Beatrice Judge, David VanOrmer. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through Nov. 20 at the Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Call 301-816-1023 or visit www.quotidiantheatre.org.