Horton Foote's family saga evokes a bygone era. TV miniseries based on lives of writer's parents

American Playhouse: Story of a Marriage PBS, Monday, 9-10:30 p.m., and April 13 and 20, 9-11 p.m. Writer: Horton Foote. Stars: William Converse-Roberts and Hallie Foote. The first program in this notably gentle and sedate drama makes some unsedate leaps: From modern times to early 20th-century rural Texas. From today's blunt personal exchanges to an era of courtly relations. From the frenetic tempo of much prime-time TV to long, exploratory conversations, heard in places like a gracious veranda with ragtime music played sweetly in the distance by a dance orchestra.

The series is Academy Award-winning screenwriter Horton Foote's generational saga of a family, based on his own parents and their life in a small Texas town. Eventually it proves well worth watching, if you don't mind a style that strives not for electrifying individual insights but rather is cumulative in effect, that takes its time wrapping you in the coils of its collective family detail.

The first episode, ``Courtship,'' is by way of a long and evocative preamble to the story of the early married years of Elizabeth and Horace Robedaux. This later action takes place in programs 2 and 3, which have previously been released - in substantially the same form - as two feature films called ``On Valentine's Day'' and ``1918.'

But ``Courtship'' is new, and its honest, wistful tone unveils the cloistered home life of Elizabeth Vaughn when she lived with her wealthy family. Redolent with the trappings of the 1900s - croquet on the lawn, ``old'' photos - it is semi-affectionate, semi-bitter, and told primarily in the form of protracted ``stage'' dialogue.

As such, the program bears close listening as it begins to outline Elizabeth's anguish and her growing resolution to elope with Horace. He may seem like a respectable young man, but Mr. Vaughn doesn't like him. After all, he's a ``traveling man,'' a salesman without prospects.

Both girls live within the claustrophobic control of their sternly protective parents, who browbeat the girls to tears for breaking rigid rules or other minor transgressions.

Through the series' long scene-laying, viewers come to accept this as the framework for the anguished drama that follows. Foote lets you understand both the parents and Elizabeth, who breaks up the domestic structure by marrying Horace against her father's wishes. It's so much against his wishes, in fact, that when Elizabeth calls her father for his blessing - just before taking her vows in part 2, ``After the Elopement'' - she gets nowhere.

His father's repressive effect on the girls is abetted by their bombardment with the morbid folklore constantly heard from household relatives and friends, dealing with things like a ``grandmother who is a dope fiend.'' Such tales warn the girls of the dire consequences of leaving the family, and also educate the viewer in the town's prevailing ethos. And they certainly put crimps in the hopes of a girl like Elizabeth, who keeps looking dreamily in the distance as Laura chatters away.

The show's seemingly unremarkable dialogue - with its hint of period-piece soap-opera - has its methods. Laura's personal questions, for instance, let Elizabeth unburden herself about her love of Horace and her audacious plan to leave home. And the two girls' conversations serve nicely as background storyteller and chorus, doing atmospheric duty as scene-setter and also as an ominous harbinger to events which have an enduring impact, like the whispered pregnancy and death of Sybil Thomas.

One particularly effective section has Elizabeth and Horace in a long dialogue on her veranda, with the music of the dance in the background. It's a dance Elizabeth wants desperately to attend with Horace, but may not. He is a door of life to her, and the ragtime is the music of life, a sound of freedom heard on and off throughout ``Courtship.'' It contrasts vividly with the lugubrious sounds of the piano and singing of the sisters in the family parlor.

Elizabeth is played with quiet insight by Hallie Foote, Horton's daughter. Her musical Texas accent is like a softly reflective commentary on the character. As the father, the skillful Michael Higgins seems sadly protective, as if trying to spare his girls a life that has hurt him.

Program 2 tells of the parents' rejection of Horace and Elizabeth after their marriage, and of their later reconciliation. Program 3 takes place in 1918 with America at war and the town overly optimistic about it and other events of the same period. The 5-hour series is actually part of a cycle of nine plays by Foote with the title ``The Orphan's Home.'' Programs 2 and 3 are each divided into two episodes, for no obvious reason.

``Actually, it [the series] was meant to be aired over five nights,'' explains ``American Playhouse'' executive producer Lindsay Law by phone from New York. ``But it was combined into three programs whose last broadcast is on April 20, because `Shoah' [a 14-hour documentary about the Holocaust] begins April 27. ... PBS is airing `Shoah' over an entire week, so there would have been two weeks between episode 4 and episode 5 [of ``Story of a Marriage''], and we just thought that was ridiculous, so we put them together.'' Mr. Law says there was a logic in using the material they chose from the ``Orphan'' cycle to create the three ``American Playhouse'' shows. ``Basically these three retain the exact same characters,'' he points out, ``and you watch them all the way through, so it's satisfying. [In the other plays in the cycle], there are very few of these characters; quite often it's relatives of theirs. It would be difficult to do a different three if you couldn't do all nine.''

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