Not all good American plays that once enjoyed success and soon faded into obscurity merit new life. But People's Light & Theatre Company proves that Morning's at Seven, a sly family comedy with more drama than advertised, is a forgotten gem.
Paul Osborn’s 1938 play shows us two houses side by side, one of many similarities with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which also premiered in ’38. However, Luke Cantarella’s splendid set shows the Swanson and Bolton houses in realistic detail, surrounded by greenery as if they sprouted from the earth.
The households are also related. Theodore (Peter DeLaurier) and Cora (Marcia Saunders) live on the left with Cora’s sister Aaronetta (Janis Dardaris). The house on the right holds Cora and Aaronetta’s sister Ida (Alda Cortese), her husband Carl (Stephen Novelli), and their 40-year-old son Homer (Pete Pryor). A fourth sister, Esther (Carla Belver) lives nearby with her husband David (Graham Smith). Homer’s fiancé Myrtle (Teri Lamm) completes director Abigail Adams’s superb cast.
Something’s got to happen
The bucolic scenery and characters’ ages — aside from Homer and Myrtle, late 60s and older — suggest little action, but the script actually brims with intrigue. Cora is eager to live alone with Theo after 50 years of sharing the house — and perhaps him — with Aaronetta, who never married. “I never met a man worth the powder to blow him up with,” she quips.
Next door, Carl suffers from “spells” of crippling self-doubt about his life choices. Today, this would be a play about depression’s ravages, but in 1938 it’s just an uncomfortable fact of life. Shy, awkward Homer has been seeing Myrtle for 12 years and engaged to her for seven, but brings her home to meet the family for the first time. Irascible David plans on dividing the house with Esther, so that each can live alone. After five decades of quiet married life, all three couples are restless.
The conflagration of emotions goes far beyond Our Town’s relatively calm scenes. But the same issues bubble underneath the surface in both: trepidation about marriage, folksy wisdom earned through life experience, crippling regrets, and secret hopes and dreams.
People’s Light’s age-appropriate cast, all resident ensemble members, plays it perfectly: the issues between them, especially among the four sisters, are as emotionally explosive and vital as at any time in their long lives. For people who interact constantly, they withhold a lot too; their secrets, some smoldering for decades, make the seemingly pleasant small-town setting a minefield.
Pretty and more
Brilliant production elements enhance the play’s lively emotional life: Marla Jurglanis’s costumes, along with J. Jared Janas’s period wigs and hair design, not only fit the time and Midwestern location, but appear comfortably lived-in. Dennis Parichy’s lighting seems filtered through tall trees we cannot see, with warm dusk tones and cozy shadows. Christopher Colucci’s sound design subtly elevates the play’s serious tones.
While pretty to look at and often funny, I was most struck — seeing Morning’s at Seven for the first time — by the play’s relevance to today’s issues. Its five women, despite their squabbles, are sensible and independent while coping with irrational, childlike men. Though they all agree a woman’s place is in the home, they’re obviously the masters in their houses — although part of their responsibility is to hide that fact from their men.
A lesser cast and director might not be so true to Osborn’s text. Instead of belittling these characters by judging them with today’s standards, People’s Light finds the fortitude, patience, and glowing humanity in all, men and women both, along with their frailties. Like Our Town, Morning’s at Seven is a play worthy of our continuing respect and appreciation, as People’s Light's smart, brave production shows.