Morning's at Seven enjoyed the briefest of runs on Broadway in 1939, and was thereafter consigned to the dustbin of American culture. Thankfully, Paul Osborn's gentle comedy of Midwestern family life was resurrected 42 years later via a enormously popular revival, in which its quartet of slightly daffy yet most practical siblings was recreated by a cast that can best be described as stellar. The cast: Maureen O'Sullivan, Nancy Marchand, Elizabeth Wilson, and — best of all — the great Teresa Wright, whose breathtaking performance in what may be Alfred Hitchcock's richest work, Shadow of a Doubt, reserved for her a place in the pantheon of cinema acting. (There was a second, similarly star-packed, revival in 2002.)
For all its wit and comic aplomb, what's at the center of Osborn's rather perfect little play is a dark terror: our fear of aging. Thus: Ida cannot let go of her 40-year-old son Homer. Ida's husband Carl has what we would now term (smugly, I think) a mid-life crisis. Arry, after years of living with Cora and her genial husband Thor, is terrified she'll be left alone. Cora is desperate to spend her remaining years with Thor, and without Arry. And bright, serene Esty is virtually held prisoner by her pathologically stubborn mate, David, whose professorial and dismissive air conceals a need to share her with no one, even her sisters. A desire for independence also lies not far from the play's comedic surface — it's shared by Cora, Carl, Homer, and Esty, just as an equally strong love of the status quo unites Ida, David, Thor, and Arry.
Theatre and movie audiences are notoriously uncomfortable with portraits of the elderly, so it's probably no surprise that Morning's at Seven didn't run in 1939. To some degree, this terror of seeing our inevitable decline reflected in popular art has lessened a bit, the result perhaps of so many aging Baby Boomers. (Not that you'd know it from the youth-obsessed state of the American film industry.) Yet Osborn's very title, taken from Browning ("Morning's at seven/ [...] God's in His heaven/All's right with the world") holds a sunny promise.
It's a distinct pleasure, then, to commend Beth Honeycutt's splendid Towne Players of Garner production of Morning's at Seven (May 15-17 at The Garner Historic Auditorium in Garner, NC). The performances vary in quality, there's a mélange of accents on the stage, and some of the costumes are too modern even for the updated timeframe (Osborn set the play in 1922; Honeycutt grounds it in the year of its premiere.) But there's so much in this excursion that is so correct, so beautifully observed, that you'll scarcely notice a few histrionic bumps along the way.
First: Scott Honeycutt's extraordinary set. From space limitations that must be a technical nightmare, Honeycutt has fashioned a pair of houses so inviting, and with such a lived-in look, they could have been dropped in from a state road. Added to which, a marvelously conceived and executed tree between, with leaves seeming to flow out from the stage's low ceiling. Even the creaking of the screen doors sounds utterly right.
Second, the direction. For an audience used to two-act plays, a three-acter can be daunting. But Beth Honeycutt speeds the proceedings along at a jolly clip that somehow never stints on the play's moments of leisure and introspection. Her step seldom falters. One particular moment struck me as almost unbearably true: Ida and Homer stand, parallel lines, backs to each other at an angle, he growing more positive about the idea of marriage, she weeping with unstated grief at her imminent loss of him. That's more than craft; it borders on genius.
Third, the cast. Despite some unnecessary (and poorly applied) gray in her hair, Ethel Webster makes a lovely Ida. Her attachment to her adult son is both amusing and a bit terrifying and her utter incomprehension at Carl's "spells" are quietly moving. As Esty, whose independence and pre-feminist sentiments surprise even her, Carol Loots seems to me perfectly cast, in spite of her repeated (and rather limited) repertoire of hand gestures. Likewise, and despite her mugging and kerchief wringing, Margo Schuler is, ultimately, an inspired Cora. Her demeanor of birdlike terror hides a steely resolve, and when she gets to Cora's impassioned statement of emancipation, Schuler is astonishingly poignant. As Arry, the most obstreperous of the sisters, Francis Stanley, with her marcelled hair and perpetual air of narrow-eyed paranoia tends to one note, but it's a funny one. Yet even she is genuinely affecting when she finds her dramatic moment.
Granting that Osborn did not lavish as much care on his male characters' personalities, the men here fare less well in general. Don Howard's Carl is barely present, which renders his existential crisis a blip on the play's emotional radar. Harvey Sage varies from moment to moment; he gives David a regal, superior mien, but his uncertainty with the lines and inability to find a use for his hands undercuts his presence. Jack Chapman fares better as Thor, but doesn't run terribly deep. We seldom get a sense of the character's subtext — he's somehow afraid of being entirely alone with Cora — but Chapman excels at Thor's comic unflappability. He wrings maximum laughter out of a line like "What the hell do you know about that?" seemingly without effort. Tim Weist's Homer is startling, and takes some getting used to. In his nervous garrulity he often resembles the love-child of Paul Lynde and Don Knotts, but has a knack for timing that occasionally makes a very funny line ("He's a very highly intelligent man. He doesn't like us") hilarious merely by omitting the period between the two sentences.
The evening's crowning glory, however, is Meg Dietrich's stunningly effective performance as Homer's eager fiancée Myrtle. There's more than a touch of Carol Burnett, not only in her voice, inflections, and comic timing, but in her facial structure as well. At home with Myrtle's comedy of social embarrassment, she also exhibits a sure grasp of its underlying tension. There's something so sad in Dietrich's Myrtle, so desperately in need of relief from her essential loneliness, that she embodies Osborn's dramatic concerns all by herself. (She's so keen you'll be forgiven for wondering why a woman as intelligent as Myrtle is involved with a simp like Homer. But that, too, has its uses; desperation can link up some pretty strange bedfellows.)
Only one other thing need be said: Go.
The Towne Players of Garner present Morning's at Seven 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.