Review: Morning's at Seven by Different Stages
by Michael Meigs
Different Stages lives up to its name with this affectionate recreation of a vanished America. Paul Osborn created for his 1930's audiences a comforting family portrait, set in a small town. All three acts of Morning's at Seven take place in a back yard shared by two wooden frame houses. All except one of the nine characters are related.
This gentle comedy was a quirky oldies play. All four of the Boulton sisters are in their sixties, as are the three husbands (one sister, Aaronetta, never married). The vigor and humor of the cast mask the gerontological aspect. In the 1930s, life expectancy for the average American man was 61; for the average American woman it was 65. (Today the figures are 80 and 76, and as I write this, my 85-year-old father-in-law sits across from me, studying the Wall Street Journal).
The only outsider, Myrtle, is a sweet-tempered spinster hoping to become an insider. Her beau of twelve years, mama's boy Homer, has finally invited her home to meet the folks, an event that in this bounded little world is something like the appearance of Halley's comet.
The sisters are pragmatic, uncomplicated souls, dealing patiently with menfolk who are unheroic. There's Homer, the son who has stayed at home even though five years ago his father had a big new house built for him, a few blocks away; his father Carl, 68 years old and given to spells of despair ("Why didn't I become a dentist?"); Theodore, known as "Thor," a plain fellow who has uncomplainingly provided lodgings for unmarried sister-in-law Aaronetta for fifty years; and David, the short-spoken retired professor who explicitly wants nothing to do with the rest of the clan.
That uninhabited house up the hill further catalyzes the action. Not-so-young-any-more Homer quivers in indecision; his aunt Cora, Thor's wife, schemes to get a lease on the house, so as finally to live without Arrie in the same quarters. And David the professor has decided to separate from eldest sister Esther to punish her for continuing to associate with her clan -- not a legal separation, but a physical one, in which they will live on separate floors and address one another as strangers.
If Osborne had written it in the 1970's or later, he would have done Morning's at Seven as a television series, for at heart it is a situation comedy, exploring relations, ambitions, and conflicts in a constrained universe. One charm is that 1930's America is portrayed as a world reduced to family elementals, simpler than today - and simpler than then. There's not a whisper of the Depression or of economic hardship; there's no reference to world events or indeed to anything much in the world outside this backyard and the adjacent neighborhood. Before the play and during the intermissions, Acorn Designs provides a gorgeous 1930's medley as background music, everything from Cab Calloway to Bing Crosby, but in retrospect that seems ironic, for the characters never even turn on a radio.
The treat of Morning's at Seven is in the cast. Five strong, distinctive women actors play against four equally vivid men, and not a one of them is in years of the ardent twenty-somethings so familiar in this town. Jennifer Underwood is forthright and decisive as eldest sister Esther, tolerant of the almost feminine priggishness of her professor husband (the lean and cutting David Hankin). Lana Dieterich as Cora has an earnest, pained demeanor always attuned to understanding and supporting others. Bobbie Oliver is the house-deprived Cora with the grim determination of the too-long-denied; and Anne Hulsman as the prospective bride has a demeanor so cheerful, sociable and polite that she's almost frightening in her desire to be accepted. Kathleen Lawson as unmarried sister Aaronetta is powerful, well-spoken and intermittently menacing, the difficult or wrong-headed sibling whom all must support.
Director Karen Jambon sets a sparkling, quick pace to this character-based piece, providing plenty of qurks and lots of laughter. Favorite scenes for me were the conjunction of mournful Carl (the comically lugubrious Sam Damon) and Hankin, doing professor David as a 1930's inspirational counselor, and, later, the astounded reaction of Uncle Thor (Richard Craig) to a revelation by Homer (Jonathan Urso), delivered in fine, comically graduated form as we see Thor gradually understand the implications of the news.
All turns out for the best, as we hoped it would, and Different Stages does us the service of reminding us that families and folks haven't really changed that much in the 70 years or so since this piece was first staged. Another tip of the hat to the company for their scrupulous exploration of American theatre with a piece too humble to be labelled "classic," but too well-crafted and amusing to be abandoned.
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