Well-known actresses Blair Brown, Edie Falco and Marin Ireland return to the New York stage in Morning Sun, in a three-character world premiere commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club from British playwright Simon Stephens, Tony Award-winning author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Heisenberg, and Blindness seen here this spring and summer.
In a departure for him, the three actresses play all of the characters, both female and male, and are listed in the program simply as 1, 2 and 3. While the play feels undramatic and has no high points it does put the entire 67 years of the life of its heroine Charlotte (Charley) McBride played by Falco center stage.
This low-key form seems to be the point for Stephens: life is a series of moments, like beads on a string, rather than big explosions or confrontations. With Brown playing her mother Claudette and Marin playing her daughter Tessa, both actresses also take turns narrating and playing other people in Charley’s life: her father Harold, her best friend Casey, her lover Brian, her husband Edward, her Uncle Stanley. Not only is the drama low-key, the characters play ordinary people, a saleswoman at Macy’s, a receptionist at St. Vincent, a janitor at the YMCA, the sort of people one had met or can identify with, unpretentious and unassuming: what most of the world is made up of.
The set created by dots for MTC’s Stage I at New York City Center is equally bland and unobtrusive: what appears to be a large basement apartment with symbolic pieces of furniture. This is partly a mistake as the three women we are told have shared a fifth floor W. 11th Street walk-up in Greenwich Village almost all of their lives. Wearing the same muted costumes by Kaye Voyce throughout (Brown in red and cranberry, Ireland in two shades of blue and Falco in a black sweater and blue jeans), the actresses believably play the years from 1947 when Charley is born to her death in 2017.
We not only follow the ups and downs of Charley’s life including betrayals, love affairs, joys and sorrows, but Stephens has peppered the play with names and events that are markers for life in New York City during the past seven decades: the Beatles at Shea Stadium, the radio shows of Leonard Bernstein, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, Joni Mitchell singing “Song to a Seagull,” Valerie Solanis shooting Andy Warhol, John Lennon shot outside of the Dakota, Bruce Springsteen, the AIDS crisis, the re-opened Wollman Rink in Central Park, etc. This is also a New York kind of play with references to specific sites and places known to all natives, including some gone forever: the Cloisters, Washington Square Park, Lexington and 65th Street, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Murphy’s Bagels, Van Leeuwen’s Ice Cream on West 10th Street. Just like the distinct moments of Charley’s life, this gives the play authentic specificity.
On the plus side, “Morning Sun” is said to be one of the few plays to deal with mother-daughter relationships. While many women will be able to identify with the three women in the play, some theatergoers may find the restrained and muted atmosphere anti-theatrical. One quickly gets used to watching Blair Brown as Uncle Stanley and Marin Ireland as Charley’s boyfriend Brian (though they never change costumes) but the play seems as much an experimental performance piece as a scripted play. In this it resembles works like Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner which also telescopes many years into a short stage time.
The title refers to Edward Hopper’s painting “Morning Sun” in which an anonymous, impassive woman sits on a bed looking out her window on a scene which looks curiously like his painting “Early Sunday Morning,” a view of lower Seventh Avenue. While acclaimed masterpieces, both are bland recreations of impersonal worlds. The impressionistic play gives the three actresses many roles in which they are subtly convincing in a kind of acting shorthand.
Director Lila Neugebauer has made an acclaimed career of staging contemporary domestic dramas with strong points of view (Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, Tracy Letts’ Mary Page Marlowe, Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn, etc.) and has always gotten excellent performances out of her actresses. Morning Sun is no exception. Simon Stephens, whose other New York plays include Harper Regan, Punk Rock, On the Shore of the Wide World, and Sea Wall, demonstrates a new facet to his writing in creating the McBride women and their family and friends.
Morning Sun (through December 19, 2021)
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center – Stage I, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission