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Theatre in Review: Morning's at Seven (Theatre at St. Clement's)

Alley Mills, John Rubinstein. Photo: Maria Baranova

Morning's at Seven is one of American drama's true unicorns, a Chekhovian family comedy that, dismissed in its 1938 debut, has gradually acquired the feel of a classic. And for good reason: It's a peerless study of hidden-in-plain sight eccentricity, focusing on elderly characters who, fearing that happiness is passing them by, find themselves acting out in unseemly fashion. Playwright Paul Osborn, a Midwesterner by birth, understood that pleasant small-town manners often hid a multitude of sorrows. "You can be alone in a lot of different ways," remarks one of the play's quartet of sisters, and Morning's at Seven knows them all.

Counterintuitively, Osborn treats his characters' mounting regrets as source of laughter lightly mixed with melancholy. Harry Feiner's set, placing two clapboard houses against an Impressionist backdrop of trees, is an attractive small-town portrait, but underneath the surface, dissatisfaction runs rampant. The upright, plain-spoken Cora has lived for half a century with her husband Thor and spinster sister Arry, a persistent irritant who pretends to love her unattached state while monopolizing her brother-in-law's attentions. It's an arrangement that has guaranteed plenty of low-level squabbling across several decades and Cora has finally decided to do something about it.

Next door lives Cora and Arry's sister, Ida, a bustling hausfrau eternally perched on the edge of anxiety because of the "spells" that afflict her husband, Carl. These expressions of anguish over a wasted life -- they come in several editions -- often cause him to stand with his head abutting a tree trunk. Adding to Ida's worries is the possibility that her forty-year-old son Homer will never pop the question to his long-running girlfriend, Myrtle. Homer, a classic case of arrested development, knows that the pressure is on, but he remains terrified of crossing the border into adulthood even as middle age comes calling.

Living nearby is Esther, the fourth sister, married to David, a retired college professor who long ago concluded that his in-laws are morons. When she spends too much time with them, David decrees that he and Esther will now live apart, each dwelling on a separate floor of their house. For good measure, he will bring Carl to live with him; together, they will contemplate the meaning of life. The crisis comes when Cora tries claims for herself and Thor the house that Carl long ago built for Homer and Myrtle as a bet on their constantly receding wedding day. The resulting disarrangements threaten to disrupt the clan's fragile way of life, leaving them fractured and, in many cases, alone.

One of the delights of Morning's at Seven is the workout it provides for a company of seasoned pros. Lindsay Crouse, as upright and stoic as a Grant Wood painting, is affecting as Cora, who only wants to spend her final years alone with Thor. She has a first-rate antagonist in Alley Mills' blunt, raspy-voiced Arry, who can't keep her nose out of everyone's business. (Her mortification when her love for Thor is exposed is one of the production's most touching moments; equally memorable is the sight of her and Cora furiously chasing each other, each trying to seize the deed to that house.) Alma Cuervo has a soothing voice and busy manner as Ida but note the glint of panic in her eyes over her errant husband and the son she does/doesn't want to lose. Acting as a font of common sense is Patty McCormack as Esther, whose years spent managing David have made her into the family's master diplomat.

Also: Dan Lauria brings warmth and bonhomie to the role of genial, feckless Thor. John Rubinstein, lost in a fog of self-accusation, is fine as wayward Carl. Tony Roberts is politeness itself as the scholarly David, telling the others, "You know, of course, without my telling you, how much you all depress me?" He also sends subtle signals of fear when Esther accommodates his new living arrangements rather too enthusiastically. Solidly representing the younger generation are Jonathan Spivey, tense and emotionally blocked as Homer, and Keri Safran as Myrtle, heartbreakingly ingratiating and grateful for the tiniest show of affection.

It's difficult to capture the play's singular quality, consisting of quicksilver emotional shifts and farcical events founded on fears of aging and loss. Osborn's gift for seeing into his everyday characters' hearts is both analytical and forgiving, and he moves them toward a deeper understanding of themselves with a sure, yet almost invisible, hand. It's a lovely American idyll, in which the sunlight and shadow are etched with more precision and depth than one first realizes.

That sunshine is well-represented by James E. Lawlor III's lighting design, along with effective twilight and morning looks. Barbara A. Bell's costumes provide the ladies with sensibly cut, if colorful day dresses, along with a slightly more modish outfit (complete with cloche hat) for Myrtle. Quentin Chiappetta's sound design fills the stage with melodies from a parlor piano.

"I've got to have something," says Esther, when David tries to cut her off from her loved ones. It's a comment that could be echoed by everyone in Morning's at Seven, the rare American play to note that advancing age doesn't deliver one from the confusions and upheavals of love. That Osborn's characters are often foolish is beyond question, but their foolishness isn't, if we're honest, too different from ours. --David Barbour

(23 November 2021)

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