Morning's at Seven
Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven is an interesting choice to close the 2007-2008 season at Stray Dog Theatre. The script is uneven and the story has not aged well (the Broadway premiere was in 1939), but the play remains an excellent vehicle for actors, with particularly strong female roles. The production at Stray Dog achieves mixed results: there are some excellent characterizations and moments of genuine theatricality, but also long stretches of tedium (the show runs two hours forty-five minutes, with two intermissions). The biggest problem, however, is that this production can't seem to decide if the characters belong in a Norman Rockwell painting or in Grace Metalious's Peyton Place.
The uncertainty of tone is a problem inherent in the script. Osborn seems to want to expose the dark side of American life, but didn't have sufficient courage to see the project through. Instead, he raises serious issues but provides pat and unbelievable resolutions which seem calculated to assure the audience that, as Robert Browning tells us in the poem which provided this show's title, "God's in His heaven/All's right with the world."
The play opens in contented midwestern America. Four sisters have remained close their whole lives, and now live in the sort of idyllic small town where nobody locks their doors, everybody's treated like family, and 40-year-old men blush at the mention of a double bed. Cora (Liz Hopeful) is married to Theodore (David K. Gibbs). Unmarried sister Ari (Sally Eaton) lives with them. Ida (Eleanor Mullin) is married to Carl (Bob Harvey) and lives next door to Cora and Theodore, while Esther (Suzanne Greenwald) is married to David (Chuck Lavazzi) and lives a few blocks away. Esther's son Homer (Shawn White) still lives at home and has been courting Myrtle (Colleen M. Backer) for 12 years, but no one thinks he'll ever work up the courage to pop the question.
Of course, you can't have a play without conflict, and Osborn may have outdone himself in this department. Into this picture of sedate satisfaction, he injects identity crises, property disputes, infidelity, and everyone's favorite soap opera standby, an unplanned pregnancy. There's enough material for a whole television season, but the problems get solved so easily, they appear as naked plot devices rather than organic outgrowths of character, and the whole enterprise starts to look tawdry and sensationalistic. And, speaking of devices, few are hoarier than prompting the plot's resolution through revelation of a letter written long ago.
Setting aside problems with the script, there are some excellent performances onstage at Stray Dog. Suzanne Greenwald is particularly good as Esther, the sister who's not afraid to call her husband's bluff, and she brings a welcome note of humor to the production. Colleen M. Backer is also excellent as Homer's overly patient fiancÚ, and has the advantage of being the only character who changes significantly over the course of the play. David K. Gibbs is the voice of reason as Theodore, who remains calm and sensible when everyone else is losing their heads. The only really false note is that of Carl, played by Bob Harvey: while I believe Osborn means us to take this character's anxieties seriously, it's impossible to do so when the actor indulges in comic affectations and seems at times to be presenting Carl as mentally deficient.
One of the interesting points about Morning's at Seven is how few details are provided about either the characters or the location. We know how old everyone is and their relationships by blood and marriage (Osborn is not shy about employing time-worn expositional techniques to that end) but very little else, not even how many children they have or how they earn their living. The location is also left unspecified, beyond the script direction "back porches and back yards of two houses in a middle-western town," and the characters display no interest in contemporary events (the play is set in 1939) such as the Great Depression or World War II. Alex M. Gaines's set does a nice job of preserving this lack of specificity with a multilayered construction of screens and lattice which establishes the small town locale without providing more specificity about either geographic location or economic class.
Morning's at Seven will run at the Tower Grove Abbey through June 28, 2008. Ticket information is available from www.straydogtheatre.org and 314-865-1995. The 2008-09 Stray Dog Theatre season will open with Paul Rudnick's Regrets Only, which will run September 11-27, 2008.