Paul Osborn’s beautiful and bucolic Morning’s At Seven was a quick flop when it premiered on Broadway in 1939 in a production directed by Joshua Logan. This director who was famous for putting his own stamp on productions chose to update the play from 1922 to 1938. In the middle of the Depression, this made a whimsical, pastoral comedy very unbelievable, explaining its failure even with five stage and screen stars.
Rediscovered in 1980 in a Broadway revival by Vivian Matalon (Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon, Arthur Miller’s The American Clock, Henry Krieger’s The Tap Dance Kid), the play was acclaimed as a lost masterpiece with a starry cast in its juicy roles that included screen legends Teresa Wright, Maureen O’Sullivan and Gary Merrill and stage stars Nancy Marchand and Elizabeth Wilson. The play went on to win three Tony Awards including Best Reproduction of a Play and Best Direction of a Play.
Although Osborn is best known for his stage and screen adaptations of such award-winning properties as South Pacific, The Yearling, and East of Eden, as well as 1950’s best sellers Sayonara, and The World of Suzie Wong, the success of the revival of Morning’s at Seven led to productions of his original works Oliver Oliver and Tomorrow’s Monday. A 2002 revival of Morning’s At Seven with Estelle Parsons, Piper Laurie, Frances Sternhagen, Elizabeth Franz, Buck Henry and Christopher Lloyd went on to be nominated for two more Tony Award nominations than the previous revival.
Dan Wackerman’s revival for The Peccadillo Theater Company and Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre has an equally starry cast some of whom have not appeared on New York stages for quite a while: Lindsay Crouse, Alma Cuervo, Tony Roberts, John Rubinstein and West Coast stars Patty McCormack and Alley Mills. Demonstrating the enduring worth of this piece of Americana, the production is as equally delightful as the previous two revivals. It is also graced by a beautifully realistic setting by Harry Feiner for the shared backyard of the two homes where all the action takes place. The new production emphasizes the humor in the dialogue and, if memory serves, it is more dramatic than the previous two revivals.
Some might say little happens in Morning’s At Seven, but, on the other hand, a great many major changes are made in the lives of the Gibbs sisters and their families and we learn all we need to know about them. Set in a small Midwestern town in 1922, three of the Gibbs sisters live in matching houses side by side: Cora and her husband Theodore (called Thor) and her unmarried sister Aaronetta (called Arry) live in the house on the left. Next door is Ida married to builder Carl Bolton and their 40 year old unmarried son Homer who has commitment problems as he is too attached to his mother. Up the block lives sister Esther (known as Esty) and her college professor husband David Crampton who believing her family to be “morons” has forbidden her to visit them but she periodically sneaks out to see her sisters. As a family they are lightly eccentric but not exceptionally so.
On the night before the play begins, Ida has seen a movie about a bachelor who comes to a bad end. This scares her so much she insists her son Homer bring home his fiancée Myrtle of eight years to meet the family for the first time. She worries that her husband Carl will have one of his periodic spells in which he questions, “Where am I?” not having become the dentist he had hoped to be. In the house across the way, sister Cora is all aflutter: living with her sister Arry all these years, she has come to believe that Arry and her husband Thor have been involved in a relationship. Her brother-in-law Carl has promised to rent her the house he had built and furnished for his son five years ago if Homer does not choose to get married this time after all these years. Over on Sycamore Drive, Esty and David’s relationship has come to an impasse but she has sneaked out to help her sisters in their predicaments. How all this ends happily along with other complications is the story of the play.
However, the play’s greatest strength is its quiet humor and wisdom about people. The characters are so well written that we never confuse them. Each of the sisters has her own unique personality, as do the three brothers-in-law: Crouse’s Cora is peremptory and with a chip on her shoulder mistrusting her sister Arry; Alma Cuervo’s Ida is the nervous type always worrying about inessentials making mountains out of molehills; McCormack’s Esty is the wise peacemaker who always seems to be able to fix problems with her placid temperament; and Mills’ Arry can’t stand to be left out and always thinks things are going on to which she is not privy.
The men are equally well-characterized, mainly playing against type: Rubinstein’s Carl is always questioning but never finding answers that satisfy him; Roberts’ David is an intellectual who does not suffer fools gladly; and Lauria’s Thor is a fairly placid man who does not let things get to him. As the unmarried son Homer, Jonathan Spivey is hilarious as a man who can find more reasons for not doing anything than most people and appears to be contracting his father’s mental eccentricities. Keri Safran’s Myrtle is an old-fashioned 39-year-old woman who always backs up her man to the detriment of her own life, and may never get Homer to propose at this rate. There is not a weak link in the cast and the play gives them all memorable moments.
Along with the magnificent set by Feiner, Jessica Zivny is responsible for the multitude of props which help give the play its small-town flavor. Barbara A. Bell’s costumes are rather bland but then these are middle-class people who are not ostentatious. While James E. Lawlor III’s lighting is satisfactory, it is almost too subtle to show the passage of time in the play’s two halves: a late afternoon in early fall and early the next morning. The uncredited hair styles are redolent of the period while all of the actors playing the brothers-in-law sport goatees.
Director Dan Wackerman’s fine revival of Paul Osborn’s now classic Morning’s At Seven is quite satisfying as a production where all of the elements come together, as well as giving us a story with a deservedly happy ending. The excellent cast of stars which it is a pleasure to welcome back is entirely in tune with the pastoral setting of an earlier time when life was slower and things were easier. Those of us who are old enough to have been given Browning to read in high school may recall that the title comes from “Song from Pippa Passes” which ends with the famous lines, “God’s in His heaven – All’s right with the world.” The play seems to say that the contented environment of the play’s milieu of almost 100 years ago makes this possible.
Morning’s At Seven (through December 5, 2021)
The Peccadillo Theater Company & Woodie King, Jr’s New Federal Theatre
Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.MorningsAt7.com
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission