Morning's at Seven
Geriatrics on the crazy train
by Sally Mitani
From the August, 2016 issue
Morning's at Seven is a chance to catch the Purple Rose in a rare instance of mining--rather than cultivating--Michigan playwrights. This play by Paul Osborn is a find, although it's a weird one. I watched the first two acts rapt, thinking this guy is an unheralded Chekhov. Writing in the late 1930s, he had the courage to portray domestic life in all its bizarre, craggy unfathomability--at least in Acts One and Two.
Osborn grew up in Kalamazoo; his first Broadway play, Hotbed, opened in 1928 when he was still in his twenties. According to his 1988 New York Times obituary, it was "inspired by a frustrating period spent toiling as an instructor in rhetoric at the University of Michigan." After that, his work regularly hit Broadway, and he wrote the screenplays for The World of Suzie Wong, East of Eden, and The Yearling.
Morning's at Seven has not been totally forgotten, but its curious trajectory reflects some uncertainty audiences have felt about its value. Its popularity peaked not during the original 1939 Broadway run, which closed after forty-four performances, but in 1980, when it won a bunch of Tony awards for best revival. Instead of staying famous, it went dormant again, only to resurface in 2002 like a blurrier Xerox of its 1980s self, this time collecting a bunch of Tony nominations for best revival but no prizes.
This is a "backyard" play, about a cohort of siblings and spouses, now senior citizens, who run in and out of each other's kitchen doors like Energizer Bunnies. The acting is breathtaking. Seven graying Equity actors (Richard McWilliams, Ruth Crawford, Laural Merlington, Franette Liebow, Hugh Maguire, Susan Craves, and Tom Whalen) bond so securely to their lines and each other it's hard to tell where the script leaves off and the characters begin.
The two other characters are a "young" (pushing forty) couple (Rhiannon Ragland, Rusty Mewha). At the start, the plot gropes its way toward them. Why don't they get hitched
already? They seem to have a problem that no one on stage can find words for. (Our label-rich era suggests a multitude: Is he gay? On the spectrum? Is she a woman who loves too much?) It turns out their problems are mundane, but at least two of the older generation are, by current standards, on the crazy train.
Michelle Mountain directs the play masterfully and intelligently, driving the first two acts hard, perhaps harder than Osborn intended, showing what strange glue binds eccentric, insular families together. And then in Act Three, I saw why this play isn't up there in the canon with Our Town or Death of a Salesman--Osborn's complacent and conventional resolution. What do you do with that? Mountain wisely drops the reins and just lets everyone play it out to a fun ending.
It's a problem play, but there's no problem with this production. Weird as this thing is, I could watch it every night for a week.
Morning's at Seven runs through Aug. 27.
[Originally published in August, 2016.]
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