"Morning's At Seven"

by Paul Osborn
Directed by Eric Engle
At the Lyric Stage , Boston, through October 18, 1999

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The core of Paul Osborn's 1939 comedy "Morning's At Seven" is a corps of four sisters, the eldest pushing seventy, who are bound together into the kind of family intimacy that is rare in America today. Three of the sisters live next door to each other-- at the Lyric Stage , in Eric Levenson's dazzling rendition of the rear facades and back yards of twin white clapboard All American two story houses of the sort that sprang up all over the Midwest between 1890-1920; the house on the right spic and span from lavish care, its twin on the left bearing the scars of deferred maintenance, both gleaming like beacons under John Malinowski's warm and flattering amber sunshine. The fourth sister lives within easy walking distance, a block or two away, most likely in an upscale version of the same house. The sisters are accustomed to popping in and out of each other's lives and minding each other's business.

Their three husbands view this variously: Carl (Jack Sweet), the plumber husband of "slow" sister Ida (Alice Duffy), is having a late life identity crisis and vacillates between being ashamed to face his omnipresent in-laws and being grateful for their advice and attention. Thor (Richard Mawe), the husband of "sweet" Cora (Mary Klug ), happily provides a home for the youngest "wild" sister, Arry (DeenaMazer). Thor seems to have led a charmed life-- all he can find to complain about is that at his latest check up the doctor told him he was in perfect health-- and is genuinely delighted when any of the rest of the gang shows up to chat. Thor appears to want to give as many of them as possible a share in his advice and benevolence, and his attitude towards his resident spinster sister in law Arry veers from the avuncular to the hospitable. However, Thor and Arry as well as Thor and Cora have secrets that tact or guilt prescribes must not be mentioned in front of the left-out sister.

David (Waldo Fielding), the professor husband of the "smart" one, Esther (Eve Johnson), is opposed to all this family togetherness. David thinks his wife's sisters are morons, and he has threatened that if Esther goes to visit her moronic relatives one more time he will separate from her-- by dividing their house into his floor and her floor. Esther certainly can't stay away from her family this particular day, however, because her nephew Homer (Marty Barrett, poised between natty and twitty in striped shirt, stiff collar, 1920's center part and grayed temples) the 40-year-old bachelor son of Ida and Carl who still lives with his parents, is bringing his 39 year old lady friend Myrtle (Judith McIntyre, likable in spite of her heroic efforts to be friendly) home to meet his family for the first time in the twelve years he and Myrtle have been keeping company. Esther just has to be there when the couple arrives, to speculate on the nature of their relationship, and to see for herself whether there is any chance that this relationship will eventuate in marriage.

After all, Carl built the young couple a new house with his own hands, not far away from the family compound, in the hope that Homer would move himself his bride into it and start a family. But after these many years, Cora has begun to look at Homer's house with longing herself. If Homer doesn't want to marry, then maybe Cora could rent the house and move in there with her husband, leaving her kid sister behind in the couple's old house. For the years that remain to them, she and husband Thor could be alone together. But how would Arry take that? Deserted by the only family she has known since their parents' early death?

Myrtle does appear, and once introduced to the family she nearly explodes with appreciation of Homer's kin. Myrtle just can't stop smiling and complimenting them all. Homer himself can't seem to decide whether this excess of civility means he is finally going to have to go through with the marriage and leave home, or that he should call it off entirely.

This morsel of plot is stretched over three acts, and milked for every laugh imaginable. It's not much, but in the hands of this spectacularly talented ensemble, it's enough. The seniors are simply superlative. Several of these veteran actors were in director Eric Engel's previous production of "Morning" for the Nora Theatre, in 1988. That production was well received, and I've often regretted that I missed it. However, it does seem as if the director and cast have spent the ensuing decade filling up a file titled "How to improve what was already good" and, adding its contents to the extra seasoning of eleven more years of performing and living, presented us with this lovely tribute to maturity.

When these "old" actors are on stage it really does feel as if the characters have known one another forever. The most banal line comes out with complexity and shading, enriched because it is a surface sample of a decades long conversation, the unspoken portion of which reaches into hidden depths. The women, each one of whom I have seen perform the grande dame in other productions-- and who I noticed reassumed theatricality and glamour for the post show party-- settle their own flexible bodies into the limitations of their characters' accommodations to age and position. They become portraits from an era when stiffly virtuous single ladies never took off their public armor, and lumpy married housewives "let themselves go".

Jana Durland Howland's costumes help a lot: what the characters wear makes very clear who they think they are and how they hope to be viewed by others. Within these parameters the actors are free to be broad, to make much of tiny variations which are only perceptible because they are all so fine tuned to one another. Director Engel has hit exactly the right tone for their interplay, so that our enjoyment of their company leads us to care for them. We learn very little from the text about them individually. We are spared expositional specifics of the older generation's youth, we are not even told what job it is that has kept Thor prosperous though nine years of the Great Depression. All the interest is in the group dynamics, the cross relationships. These people who have seen each other every day, year after year. How well do they really know one another? Who believes what about whom?

Honey colored sunshine, white clapboard houses, picket fences, cheerful company manners, nosy neighbors... if I had seen "Morning" in, say, 1965, when I was young and the script was already old hat and out of fashion, I would probably have hated it. What could be worse than a play about seven old fogies and two under sexed middle aged lovers? A close knit clan of boring Midwesterners, endlessly snooping into each other's trivial affairs when they aren't busy being "nice"? Osborn's characters are more successful at being nice than my own Ohio family ever was: but still, these are exactly the sort of people and the kind of conversations that sent me fleeing the Midwest in search of the Examined Life-- by which I did not mean peeking in windows! Well, certainly not in the respectable windows in my neighborhood.

I was always so sure those Ohio old fogies and I had nothing in common-- those clods, who cared nothing for Art and Culture. Alas, I sit in the Lyric Stage audience now, marveling at this window on the Good Old Days, and I know that the twentysomething young people who are laughing indulgently at Osborn's sixty year old play see me and my friends as the old fogies. The kids don't make a distinction between us graying "moderns" and my childhood's annoying provincial aunts and or my good hearted ignorant peasant of a grandmother. Funny thing about art: now I can see it like that, too.