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A CurtainUp Review
Mornings At Seven
By Elyse Sommer
Fortunately, director Daniel Sullivan has opted to stage Osborn's gentle story of four sisters whose lives in a small mid-western town are inextricably intertwined without any attempts to add contemporary stylistic twists. John Lee Beatty, whose sets have often prompted calls from people eager to persuade him to design their homes, has created two wonderfully detailed Victorian clapboard houses, as alike as the existences of the sisters occupying them.. The view is of the back -- the porches and yards -- with glimpses of the interiors and the streetscape beyond the front door. Costume designer Jane Greenwood has caught the fashions of the day to blissful perfection. No casual wear even for relaxing in the backyard. The men never leave the house without jacket and tie; the women wear ample aprons to protect the print dresses blooming with more tiny flowers than any garden. Brian MacDevitt's lighting casts everything and everyone in a warm summer-y glow that belies that the era we nostalgically think of as tranquil was sandwiched between two monumental and seismically life-changing events, the Great Depression and World War II.
While the plot, something of a sitcom precursor, plays out over just two days in the lives of the four Gibbs sisters (only one of whom retains her maiden name), those two days lay bare a lifetime of familial affection and resentment, and stir up a current of fears and joys with spurts of humor to leaven the darker emotions. Like many period plays the event that sends the plot spinning is the arrival of a stranger. Her name is Myrtle Brown (Julie Hagerty) and even though she and Carl (Christopher Lloyd) and Ida's forty-year-old son Homer (Stephen Tobolowsky) have been keeping company for a dozen years, no one in the family has ever met her. .
Having Myrtle, heretofore a subject of much sisterly speculation, materialize at last is indeed a major event. While everyone welcomes her, the visit and official engagement coincide with one of Carl's periodic "spells" during which he rants about having "taken a wrong turn " instead of fulfilling his dream of becoming a dentist. This latest spell gives Ida second thoughts about cutting Homer loose from her apron strings. There's also the matter of the handsome house Carl built and kept empty in case Homer marries and which Cora has her eye on for reasons of her own.
Thus we have four sisters who have always lived within walking distance of each other, three retired husbands, a reluctant-husband-to-be and his eager-to-please lady love -- the youngest thirty-nine (Myrtle) the oldest in their seventies (Esther and David). They are ordinary people living unextraordinary lives, their emotions tightly corseted and their talk peppered with platitudes. Only Carl, with his manic "spells" voices the common pain of aging and its accompanying anxiety and anger about taking the wrong fork in life's road.
This being a comedy rest assured that the marital upsets stirred by Myrtle's visit and the obstacles to her joining the family circle will be resolved by the time the curtain falls. A suspenseful plot is not what Mornings at Seven is about. Neither is it a laugh-a-minute comedy as much as a family drama lightly punctuated with laughter and generously spiced with charm. Its rewards come from getting to know and like these people, which, given the wonderful performances by the sisters and all their stage kin, is just about guaranteed.
The tenaciousness of the sibling bond is best illustrated by the fact that Esther's (Piper Laurie) continued visits with sisters Cora (Estelle Parson), Aaronetta (Elizabeth Franz) and Ida (Frances Sternhagen, despite the objections of her curmudgeonly professor husband David (Buck Henry). He considers them and their families "morons." but Esther enjoys their company nonetheless. The best way to describe the success with which Laurie, Parsons, Sternhagen and Franz succeed at forging this bond on stage is that after a while they actually seem to be sisters playing out their designated roles in the family structure.
The resentments that bubble beneath the surface of these women's inseparability stem from the way mothers and fathers tend to tag their children with personality traits that have a way of carrying over into adulthood. As Cora at one point reminisces, their father teasingly declared "Esty's smartest, Arry's wildest, Ida's slowest, Cora's mildest." It was that "mildness" that made Cora agree to sacrificing her marital privacy, as the "wildness" was at bottom of Arrie's not very hard to guess at youthful secret, Ida's dependency and Esther's marrying an academic. It's easy to see echoes in one's own and other lives in the shock waves caused when Cora breaks out of her mild mold in a desperate attempt to make up for years of resentfully sharing her home. On the other hand, Esther plays up her smarts with more determination than ever, thereby turning the various upended emotional applecarts right side up again.
If I had to single out one of the actresses as the best of the sisters, I'd have an awfully hard time of it. Certainly Elizabeth Franz is terrifically funny as well as touching as the busybody spinster. But so are Frances Sternhagen as the somewhat ditzy Ida, Estelle Parsons as the newly determined Cora, and Piper Laurie as the captain steering the family ship back to its tranquil harbor. And not to overlook the family outsider eager to become a family insider, Julie Hagerty whose Myrtle has you rooting for her to make it to the altar. Finally, as good as the women are, so are the men. Christopher Lloyd is a convincingly altar-shy Homer, Buck Henry beautifully conveys the wistfulness beneath the professorial bluster, and Biff McGuire, ideally cast as the gentlemanly Theodore (a.k.a. Thor), delivers the many good lines the playwright has given him with wry, well-timed humor.
I saw the show at a Saturday matinee largely attended by people old enough to identify with a time when there were plenty of small towns where a house could be rented for $45 a month and a new bathroom costing $300 was exorbitant. But you don't have to be of a certain age to be won over by this play's gentle charm, and its fine acting and stagecraft. Morning's At Seven, is not a great or neglected classic but it's gratifyingly entertaining, a bit like leafing through an old photo album that could belong to anyone's family.
A final note for theatrical trivia collectors: Even with the legendary Dorothy Gish in the original cast (as Aaronetta or Arry) Mornings At Seven only lasted for 44 performances during it 1939 Broadway premiere. A 1980 revival at the same theater where it has just opened met with more succes, running for 564 performances. The sisters in that production were played by Nancy Marchand (Ida), Maureen O'Sullivan (Esther ), Elizabeth Wilson (Aaronetta) and Teresa Wright (Cora).
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