By Daniel Skora
Art is never created in a vacuum. In some form or fashion, it’s reflective of the time and the place in which it was created. Yet truths can be found in artistic expressions no matter where or when they were created because all have to some degree a concern for the human condition.
In 1939, Paul Osborn’s play “Morning’s At Seven” opened on Broadway. By all standards, it was a flop, notching only 44 performances before closing. But a 1980 revival which received three Tony Awards, including Best Reproduction, brought renewed interest. Over the years, it’s become a favorite of regional, community, and summer stock theatres, in part because it requires a cast of nine, allowing a goodly number of actors to take to the stage and do their thing. But the larger reason that it’s still performed these many decades later is not only because it remains entertaining, but that the family relationships it portrays still have the ring of truth.
“Morning’s At Seven” can deservedly be called an American Classic, as The Purple Rose Theatre so proclaims it in the poster it uses to promote its current production of the play. The play is set in 1938, in the backyards of two neighboring homes in a small Midwestern town. It concerns four sisters on the cusp of their golden years, the husbands of three of them, and the son and his fiancée of one of them. Aaronetta Gibbs (Laural Merlington) is the oldest of the four sisters who’s been living in the home owned by her sister Cora Swanson (Ruth Crawford) and her husband Theodore (Richard McWilliams) the entire length of their marriage. They live next door to a third sister, Ida Bolton (Franette Liebow) and her husband Carl (Hugh Maguire). Their son Homer (Rusty Mewha) also lives with them even though he’s a grown man and been engaged to Myrtle Brown (Rhiannon Ragland) for seven years. The fourth sister, Esther Crampton (Susan Craves) lives a short walk away with her husband David (Tom Whalen).
“Morning’s At Seven” is a quirky play. The conversations the family engages in seem less than real speak than dialogue that’s been ripped from the pages of some absurdist play. Everyone in this play is a creature of habit. However, events that will upset this family’s apple cart of predictability begin to happen quickly. Carl’s been having “spells”, leaning his head against a wall or a tree and going blank. Cora wants out of the home she’s been sharing with Aaronetta all her married life and has designs on a home built for Homer should he ever decide to pop the question with Myrtle. Aaronetta is angry that she may be left homeless if Cora vacates their present home, Theodore is perturbed that his wife is even asking him to move, rumors resurface about a decades-old tryst between one of the sisters and somebody else’s husband, additional rumors materialize that the relationship between Homer and Myrtle may be something other than platonic, and Ester faces banishment to the second floor of her home by her husband David for fraternizing with her family because he thinks the whole bunch of them are stupid. He may be right.
Titles usually say a lot about a play. Note that the word “Morning’s” in the title is not the plural form, as in “many mornings”. The apostrophe indicates it’s a contraction and should correctly be read as “Morning is At Seven”, a line spoken by one of the characters at the close of act 1 indicating the precise time at which the next day begins. The title is taken from the lines of a poem by Victorian poet Robert Browning that can be found in a play he wrote called “Pippa Passes”. Because it ends in an oft-quoted saying that has much to do with the playwright’s intent, it’s worthy to note:
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.
Who knows the name Browning nowadays besides academics, Lit majors and those who happen to receive one of those little Hallmark gift books containing one of those 44 Love Sonnets from the Portuguese written by Robert’s wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning? And even fewer of those will have ever heard of a play called “Pippa Passes”.
But don’t let any of this talk about Browning and an obscure play scare you away. “Morning’s At Seven” will probably be as different a play you will have ever seen, but it’s still an interesting excursion through a time and a place where people marched to a different drummer. It’s a slow train coming that meanders through three acts and two intermissions, and even after it’s gone and left the station leaving you wondering what purpose it might have had in its coming, you will be glad to have met this extended family and the sorrow and laughter they have shared with you. This is not a dysfunctional family, as some might suggest, but rather one totally committed in their unsophisticated way to the concerns and the survival of their family.
The Purple Rose and director Michelle Mountain have done a fine job of bringing this play to life. The set by Sarah Pearline consists of an inviting pair of back porches that overlook a healthy expanse of lawn. Lighting by Reid G. Johnson bathes the set in a variety of color schemes depending on the play’s time of day. Costume design is by Suzanne Young. The entire cast turns in exceptional performances, and if Laura Merlington happens to stand out, it’s because her character is more pivotal than the rest.
“Morning’s at Seven” runs through August 27th. Ticket reservations may be made by calling the Purple Rose box office at 1.734.433.7673 or going online at www.purplerosetheatre.org. The theatre is located at 137 Park Street in Chelsea. Exit at 159 if you’re going west on I-94.