Morningís at Seven by Paul Osborn. Directed by Vivian Matalon.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...pulses all a trifle slower, maybe."
Debra Jo Rupp, Anita Gillette, Lucy Martin and Joyce Van Patten; photo: Kevin Sprague
Four sisters in 1922, in a small Midwestern town, live out their lives in conjunction. Three are married, one is not. Three share a backyard as no fence mars the connection between their two nearly identical homes. One has a husband who has loved two of them; one has a husband who has spells that threaten to destroy all happiness; one has a husband who is controlling and desperate to retain control. One has a son who cannot completely commit to the woman heís been seeing for 12 years. One day everyone gets together in that backyard that links them all together and the result is chaos. Thatís "Morningís at Seven" by Paul Osborn. Oh. Itís a comedy.
Director Vivian Matalon has almost made a career out of directing this play. He won awards on Broadway for his production of the show back in 1981. It ran for 564 performances. It starred Maureen OíSullivan, Nancy Marchand, Elizabeth Wilson and Theresa Wright.
The show wasnít a major hit in its first production, pre-Matalon, in 1939 when it starred Dorothy Gish and Jean Adair. That only lasted for a mere 44 performances.
Now it is here at the Berkshire Theatre Festival for two weeks on the main stage and we have a problem on our hands: is it a hit, the way it was in 1981 or is it a 1940's flop? Itís actually hard to be sure.
There are very good people, talented people, on the stage in Stockbridge. They are fun to watch but even though Matalon gives them the occasional direct contact with us (a sidelong glance with a sappy expression directed toward the first five rows in the orchestra more than once in a scene, for example) we do not really feel we know these folks. Thereís something distant and odd about them all. Itís not their fault. Itís the play. For whatever reason, unlike in 1981, it just doesnít engage us.
In the house to the right live the Swansons, Theodore, called Thor and his wife Cora. Paul Hecht is Thor and Lucy Martin is his wife. Living with them is Coraís unmarried sister Aaronetta played by Joyce Van Patten. Across the way are the Boltons, Carl, played by Jonathan Hogan, his wife Ida played by Debra Jo Rupp and their son Homer, played by Kevin Carolan. The Cramptons live in a better part of town; Esther is played by Anita Gillette and her husband David is played by David Green. Homerís girlfriend is played by Christianne Tisdale, best remembered locally as Nellie Forbush in Barrington Stage Companyís "South Pacific."
Addressing their work: Tisdale is very funny as Myrtle. Her Myrtle has no endearing qualities and when she is spurned by Homer in favor of his mother, we donít feel sympathy for her. I think weíre supposed to feel it, but we donít. Still, Tisdale is very funny even when she becomes outrageously assertive. Carolanís Homer is pathetic but not sympathetic. He should be, we think, but he never is. Debra Jo Rupp is a perfect Ida, confused, stilted, needy, and yet she never wins our heart except for a second at the end of the third act when she becomes burdened with responsibilities she has always been ready to assume. Itís a charming performance, but she does not win us over. Hogan, to complete the Bolton picture, is wonderful as the confused soul trying to find the fork in the road where he may have taken the wrong turn. When he returns from his brief sojourn away from home he becomes one more dissipated character, lost in the confusion that reigns around him and we lose him also. Itís too bad because he starts out so well.
Greenís David Crampton is an ill-defined character which is not the actorís fault. We are left with a man who is verbose but cannot speak. Itís a role that defeats the actor because there is nothing fulfilled in him. Anita Gillette sparks as Esther. She has grace and charm and beauty and she uses all of her abilities with the role to make it fleshed out and worthy. With gumption and style she creates a memorable woman.
Lucy Martinís character Cora is the centerpiece in this version of the tale. She is resolved to her goals, strong and determined. She is emotionally stifled and she is sweetly hard as nails. Martin does a wonderful job playing this part and she leaves us wondering how she could be related to the folks next door, even though she and Rupp are wonderfully similar in their moments together. Hecht makes his Thor into a half-hearted thunderer. He runs the gamut from exuberantly involved to oddly petulant and silent. His role is perhaps the most difficult for he is the love object personified. His lumbering presence makes that hard to envision, but his personal charm overrides our visual impressions of him. Itís an excellent performance of a highly conflicted role.
Van Patten, in the role created by Dorothy Gish more than sixty years ago, is a gem. Obviously named for her father, Aaronetta is strong-willed, angry, loving, amused, not-amused, and charmless as she pursues her personal agendas. She scowls where others pout. She grins where others smile mildly. She flirts with her eyes and her hands. She uses both to stare down others and to seize quickly what is not hers. In the final scene of the play, as she prepares to alter the course of her life, she is almost brilliant when she finds herself trapped by her rivalís sudden knowledge of long withheld truths.
Clearly this cast is more than capable of creating lasting impressions with their characters. Sadly, the play doesnít give us characters we really want to know very well, or for very long. The show is almost three hours long and feels too lengthy for its subject matter. Thank God for the laughs. They help get us through this excursion into the lives of the uninteresting, the un-enthralling. There are certainly worse places to be on a summer night, but this particular, well-designed backyard, makes it hard to remember what or where those other places might be.
Paul Hecht, Lucy Martin and Joyce Van Patten; photo: Kevin Sprague
Kevin Carolan and Christianne Tisdale; photo: Kevin Sprague
Morningís at Seven plays at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA through August 11. Ticket prices range from $37-$64. For tickets or information call the box office at 413-298-5576.