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Chicago by John Olson

Morning’s at Seven
Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place

Morning's at Seven
(l-r) Roslyn Alexander, Mary Ann Thebus, Brigid Duffy, and Katherine Helmond
The resurrection of a theatre is almost always cause for celebration, but the second production at the recently reopened Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place gives us the hope that a significant new venue to the Chicago theater scene has arrived. Morning’s at Seven, starring Katherine Helmond, might have looked like a traditional dinner theatre choice – casting of a well-known TV sitcom performer in a crowd-pleasing vehicle, but the production on stage would be at home anywhere in Chicago, including places like the prestigious Goodman and Steppenwolf theaters. The piece, originally produced in 1939, is a minor classic that has attracted major talents, most recently in the 2002 Broadway revival directed by Seattle Repertory’s Daniel Sullivan that featured Piper Laurie, Buck Henry, Estelle Parson, Frances Sternhagen and Christopher Lloyd. This production is directed by Steppenwolf artistic associate Jessica Thebus and features a cast of top-notch Chicago character actors who have worked for years in the city’s best theater companies; as well as Ms. Helmond, who has performed O’Neill on Broadway in addition to starring in successful TV sitcoms like Who’s the Boss? and Soap.

None of this means that this production is not highly entertaining. The story concerns four sisters, the husbands of the three married ones and a son of one of the sisters, in an unnamed small-town circa 1939. The sisters and husbands, all in their sixties or early seventies, have already begun to question some of their life choices when the forty-year-old bachelor son, Homer (Tim Decker), announces his intention to marry his longtime fiancée Myrtle (Hanna Dworkin) and brings her home to meet the family for the first time.

Homer’s announcement, and the suspense over whether or not he’ll go through with the wedding, prompts his parents, aunts and uncles to consider life changes of their own. Homer’s father Carl (a hilariously befuddled James Harms) suffers from anxiety over feelings his life has been a failure and resumes a pattern of absentmindedly wandering away for reflective walks. He may move in with brother-in-law David (Robert Breuler), a controlling and pompous retired University professor who has just banished his wife Esther (Roslyn Alexander), the eldest sister, for visiting her sisters and their families (whom he views as all “morons”) without his permission. The potential separation of his parents may cause Homer to postpone his marriage to Myrtle so that he can stay at home with his mother, the long-suffering Ida (Brigid Duffy). That would mean he and Myrtle would not be moving into the house Carl has saved for them, and would instead make it available to Cora (Mary Ann Thebus) and her husband Thor (Rob Riley), so they could finally have a home of their own apart from the unmarried sister Aaronetta (Ms. Helmond), who has lived with them for forty years.

Morning’s at Seven provides nine juicy character roles, all humorously yet affectionately drawn. Thebus establishes a light comic tone that elicited consistent warm laughs from the opening night audience. The cast is uniformly superb. Ms. Helmond is a delightful Aaronetta, drawing upon but not repeating her character Mona from Who’s the Boss as an older woman who still believes herself attractive, accepting responsibility for her choice to remain unmarried, yet not bitter about it. Anchoring this sweet but dotty group is Ms. Alexander as big sister Esther, whose wisdom is set in counterpoint to the eccentrics around her and ultimately begins to put the plot resolutions in place. Though a period piece of a time when families stayed together, even living next door to each other (in Jack Magaw’s nostalgic set of the adjoining backyards of two of the families), the theme of reflection upon life choices, and our resistance to make changes – even when they are critical - is enduring.

The Drury Lane theaters in suburban Chicago (including the other currently operating in Oak Brook and the recently closed theater in Evergreen Park) have a history of producing commercially viable shows that have provided steady employment for Chicago’s theater artists, such Gary Griffin, who will make his Broadway directorial debut with The Color Purple this Fall and who serves as an artistic advisor to this theater. This production of Morning’s at Seven proves that artistic and commercial viability aren’t mutually exclusive. If Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place can keep this formula working, in the heart of Chicago’s tourist district, it’ll be a very important addition to the local theater community indeed.

Morning’s at Seven runs through August 28th, with performances Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:00 p.m. There are also some Wednesday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the box office (75 E. Chestnut St.), by calling 312-642-2000 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.

Photo: John Bridges

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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