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This weekend and next, The Towne Players of Garner will continue its 2002-2003 season with a lively production of Paul Osborn's delightful domestic comedy, Morning's at Seven, which debuted on Broadway in 1939 and ran for 44 performances. A 1981 revival was much more successful, running for 564 performances; and the 2002 Broadway revival — starring Elizabeth Franz, Piper Laurie, Estelle Parsons, and Frances Sternhagen — was nominated for Best Revival of a Play and five other Tony® Awards.
In her CurtainUp.com review of the 2002 revival of Morning's at Seven, Elyse Sommer writes: "The revival of... Paul Osborn's 1939 family comedy dishes up a triple dose of nostalgic pleasures. There's the pleasure of seeing an unashamedly well-made play with a full scale cast of fully realized, endearing characters. To double that pleasure, we have the chance to see those characters portrayed by as able a group of actors as have graced a single stage in a while. The additional pleasure of re-visiting a bygone era brings the realization that though the life style depicted may be gone, the fears and despair that accompany aging and the binding ties of family connections are timeless."
The play takes its title from a verse of British poet Robert Browning's well-known poem "Pippa Passes": "The year's at the spring,/And day's at the morn:/Morning's at seven;/The snail's on the thorn;/God's in His heaven/All's right with the world."
"I didn't really know if I liked the play when I first read it," confesses Towne Players artistic director Beth Honeycutt, "but when I saw a scene on the Tony® Award show, I realized it had great charm. It is one of those shows that plays so much better than it reads."
Set in 1939 in a small town in the Midwest, Morning's at Seven focuses on the tight-knit family of the four "crazy" Gibbs sisters, their eccentric husbands, and impossible offspring. Once labeled in childhood by their father ("Esty's smartest, Arry's wildest, Ida's slowest, Cora's mildest"), the inseparable sisters have not outgrown the youthful personality traits that inspired their father's characterization of them.
They have spent their entire lives together, living peacefully side by side. But when Ida's 40-year-old son Homer — a highly reluctant bridegroom-to-be — announces the imminent arrival of his long-time fiancée Myrtle, Ida cannot quite cut the apron strings that bind Homer to her. Indeed, preparations for the eager-to-please Myrtle's belated visit disturb the domestic tranquility and force the sisters to reconsider their plans to spend their remaining years together.
"I love the feel of the show," says Honeycutt. "It's like going back in time. It has an almost golden glow. I expect to see my grandfather come ambling out of one of the houses to sit in his chair. (Yes, [the chair on The Garner Historic Auditorium stage] was really his.) The story is charming, a bit of a soap opera but with more wit and more interesting characters."
Honeycutt adds, "I wanted to direct this show because I felt strongly that our audiences could enjoy and relate to the characters and situations. I also knew it would bring out some wonderful actors. I was right. My cast has been incredible. Their resumes are long and impressive but perhaps the most impressive thing to me is the fact that there are three directors in the cast and I've been the only one directing. I take that as a real honor and a sign of great trust from these folks."
Beth Honeycutt says Morning's at Seven is an affectionate portrait of four Midwestern sisters (Francis Stanley as Arry, Margo Schuler as Cora, Carol Loots as Esty, and Ethel Webster as Ida), their families, and their secrets. "There is great excitement," Honeycutt explains, "when Ida's 40-year-old son (Tim Weist) finally brings his fiancée of seven years (Meg Dietrich) home to meet the family.
"Problems occur," Honeycutt adds, "when Ida's husband (Don Howard) has another of his 'dentist spells,' Esty's jealous husband (Harvey Sage) threatens to ban her to the second floor, and a long-held secret of Cora's husband (Jack Chapman) comes to light. There is a heavy dose of humor mixed with just the right touch of sentimentality. It is a delightful, thought-provoking slice of American life."
Staging Morning's at Seven on the tiny stage of The Garner Historic Auditorium presents considerable challenges to director Beth Honeycutt and her production team. The biggest challenge? "Are you kidding?" quips Honeycutt, "It's producing two exteriors of two houses on our stage! There's something to keep my technical director [her husband, Scott Honeycutt, who also serves as the show's lighting and sound director] and I awake at night."
Beth Honeycutt says, " Scott has done an incredible job. The set is lovely. We have two houses on stage (or at least part of two houses).
"The play is set in the adjoining backyards of two houses," she notes. "My favorite part of the set is the lawn furniture. It actually belonged to my grandparents. My grandfather died when I was very young, but I can actually remember [him] and my grandmother sitting in their backyard, which adjoined ours, shelling peas. Every time I walk into the auditorium and see the set, I'm taken back to that time.
"Morning's at Seven is a show that I will rate as one of our best," says Beth Honeycutt, "regardless of crowd size or reviews, because every night while I watch the rehearsals, I'm transported in time. I'm completely taken in by these characters. What more could you ask?"
The Towne Players of Garner present Morning's at Seven Friday-Saturday, May 9-10, at 8 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday, May 15-17, at 8 p.m. at The Garner Historic Auditorium, 742 Garner Rd., Garner, NC. $8 ($6 students and seniors). 919/779-6144. http://www.towneplayers.org/pages/CurSeas.shtml.