VALENTINE’S DAY, Cactus Theatre, at Live Bait Theater. On Valentine’s Day 1917, Miss Elizabeth Vaughn defied the wishes of her wealthy parents and eloped with rootless Horace Robedaux. It is now Christmas, and Elizabeth’s stern father, hearing that a grandchild is on the way, has forgiven the impetuous lovers and offered to assist them in establishing a more permanent home than their room in a boardinghouse. Their optimistic future is contrasted with the sorry fates of two neighbors: Bobby Pate, living in an alcoholic fog, and George Tyler, in a fog of gentle madness. Both long ago failed to act on their true feelings, thus missing their opportunity for happiness.

Horton Foote’s bone-bare dialogue walks a precarious line between simplicity and banality. And though Cactus Theatre’s restrained performances keep the narrative well this side of parody, William Green’s static direction–posing actors in neat daguerreotype tableaux rather than allowing them to use their bodies for expression–makes for a somberness so oppressive that even humorous lines are stifled in a stony silence. (This can be dangerous for a show–once the first genuine laugh breaks the tension, the audience is likely to howl out of sheer relief at anything that follows.) Given the difficulty of establishing chronological relationships with a uniformly young cast and spatial relationships when characters wander through the young couple’s private living quarters unannounced, one is left with the impression of ghosts floating through a nostalgic vacuum. Even a suicide (which we can see coming an hour before the playwright springs it on us) makes no more impression than a falling snowflake. Despite Cactus’s meticulous exercise in acting, we leave the theater no different than when we entered.