Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2007
Paul Osborn (1901-1988) originally set Morning’s at Seven in the year it was written – 1939 – but director Vivian Matalon asked his permission to shift it to 1922 for his Tony Award-winning 1980 Broadway production, and now that is the official setting for this appealing domestic comedy. Matalon, who has also directed the fine production currently running on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, said that too much was happening in the world in 1939 to make the characters’ naiveté believable, that 1922 was the last bastion of American “innocence.” I think he is completely wrong. There was no time in history when grown people had an excuse to be innocence and insular, but many of them have been, are, and will be that way. The Gibbs Family featured in this play are just one example.
Esther Gibbs Crampton (Anita Gillette), age 72, Cora Gibbs Swanson (Lucy Martin), age 70, Ida Gibbs Bolton (Debra Jo Rupp), age 66, and Aaronetta “Arry” Gibbs (Joyce Van Patten), age 63, live in the mid-western town of their birth. Ida and her husband Carl (Jonathan Hogan) live next door to Cora and her husband Theodore, known as Thor (Paul Hecht), and it is in their adjoining backyards that the action of the play takes place. Arry, the “old maid,” has lived with Cora and Thor for the past 40+ years. Of the sisters, only Ida has reproduced. She and Carl have a 40-year-old son, Homer (Kevin Carolan), who has been engaged for 12 years to Myrtle Brown (Christianne Tisdale).
The play takes place in the course of less than 24-hours one early fall day. Homer has finally brought Myrtle home to meet the folks, but his father, Carl, is having one of his “spells” and these combined events unleash a lifetime of pent up emotions and frustrations. While many things threaten to change during the course of the play, only two things do, and part of the delicious fun of watching this talented cast unfold this tale is trying to guess what really will happen and what won’t.
Morning’s at Seven was pretty much a flop when it was first produced on Broadway in 1939, running for a mere 44 performances. It wasn’t until Matalon’s 1980 revival that the show received any attention and acclaim, but now it is an established part of the regional theatre repertoire, not only because it is a gentle, family-friendly show, but because it contains such wonderful roles for a quartet of actresses of an age where such things are very, very hard to come by. If you are not familiar with the four leading ladies here, and if you have owned a television set at any point in the past few decades you should be, you will remember their names, their talents, and their beauty after seeing this production.
While I argue with Matalon’s suggestion that 1922 or any other year was an age of universal innocence, this play does depict a time when birth control and divorce were not part of people’s every day lives. If Esther is 72 in 1922 that means she was born in 1850, before the Civil War. Her lifetime, and her sisters’, would have been fraught with monumental change and upheaval, but their values would hearken back to a time when the family was the primary social unit. There is no world outside of the family and even spouses are seen as interlopers.
Here Esther’s husband, David (David Green) has forbidden her to see her sisters and informed her that, if she disobeys him, they will live separately – she on the second floor of their home and he on the first. David is a pompous ass, but the fact is that he is trying to break a sacred bond, one that even the love and sex Myrtle represents to Homer has a hard time untying the apron strings of hearth and home. To the Gibbs sisters the family unit of their birth is the one that matters.
The best moments here come where Matalon has Gillette, Van Patten, Rupp, and Martin play up the sisters’ similarities rather than their differences. These are four distinctly different performers who really don’t look like siblings at all, so their relationships must be established and maintained through the use of shared vocal rhythms and physical mannerisms.
One of the most delightful juxtapositions of all comes early on when Tisdale’s Muriel meets her future mother-in-law in Rupp’s Ida. These two women so central in Homer’s life have never met before, but within a few moments of their speaking together you realize that they are exactly the same. Homer is escaping his mother by marrying her doppelganger – not an uncommon occurrence but hilariously telling here.
Aside from Tisdale, Rupp is the youngest woman in the cast, a full decade younger than the character she is playing and the women she is playing with, but she blends in beautifully. It is hard to believe that this is the same woman who had me in stitches last summer in Barrington Stage’s production of Ring Around the Moon where she played a garish middle-aged gold-digger in some of the most outlandish costumes imaginable. Here she is an iron butterfly with apron strings of steel which she wields with astonishing skill.
Gillette effortlessly centers the play and the Gibbs family. She is a true stage star and it is wonderful how her brightness illuminates the whole cast without overpowering them. Van Patten’s Arry is a force to be reckoned with – as stubborn as the day is long. And Martin’s Cora, the “mildest” of the sisters by her father’s reckoning, finds her voice and her backbone as she confronts a decades old conflict living under her roof.
Tisdale is very, very funny as the completely unsympathetic Myrtle, blaring out her absolutely phony declarations of happiness in stentorian tones for all to hear. Carolan is her perfect foil as the spineless Homer, who has his own peculiar rhythms of speech and movement, many delicious echoes of those Hogan has developed for his father, Carl. Together they make a hopelessly cacophonous pair.
With the exception of Homer, whose relationship with Myrtle moves the plot along, the hapless husbands of the Gibbs girls are a mere afterthought, but Hogan, Hecht, and Green make them very distinct individuals, each hilariously funny in just the right way. Hecht is a solid family man as Thor. Hogan’s Carl, who cannot recover from a road not taken early in his life, was a gentle fool whose mid-life crisis at 68 seemed just as pathetically pointless as the years he was bemoaning having wasted. Green is a dead-ringer for the late, great Robert Benchley, which endeared him to me immediately, and he makes the most of a thinly written role. For all of David’s pompous chatter, I am still dying to know what he was about to say at the final curtain.
Set Designer R. Michael Miller has filled much of the stage with the Swanson and Bolton houses and back porches, so the “lawn” playing area is pushed way down front and is really quite small, but you don’t notice it while Matalon has his cast at work on it. Despite the fact that this is a play about the mundane problems of a terribly typical extended family there is never a dull moment in this three-hour production. The delightful lighting which realistically evokes the afternoon and evening sunlight is by Ann G. Wrightson.
David Murin’s costumes are both simple and becoming to the Gibbs sisters, harsher for Tisdale’s sharp-edged Muriel, and basic for the menfolk. I wasn’t at all convinced that any of the women’s clothes were appropriate to 1922 – the sisters’ seemed too dated and Muriel’s seemed more 1930’s than 1920’s – but they were all of a piece and made a unified statement about who these women were.
This is not a play that will change the world, but it will bring a smile to your lips. There are a lot of laughs and it is wonderful to watch this cast at work under such expert direction. I can think of no finer diversion for a hot summer’s night.
Morning's at Seven runs through August 11 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (box office 413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs three hours with two intermissions and is suitable for the entire family.
* Many may wonder, as I did, why there is an apostrophe in the title of this play. It is a quotation from the poem Pippa Passes by Robert Browning. The verse in which it appears is quoted in its entirety below. Frankly, I STILL don’t think there should be an apostrophe, but there is and this is why.
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.
- from Pippa Passes by Robert Browning
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007