Nestled onto Gregory Jaye's magnificent set for Morning's at Seven is a relatively quiet, old-fashioned play that shines like a bright beacon. Set in the joined yard of two massive bungalows, this is a comic, almost musical tale of forbidden love among the neurotic and the infirm. Its more-than-slightly fusty script mulls charmingly over repressed feelings among sisters, lovers, husbands and wives. But it hardly matters that we've met these people before -- in real life and in movies, books, and other plays -- because they're brought so sharply to life by Phoenix Theatre's letter-perfect ensemble cast.
Originally produced in New York in 1939 and revived on Broadway in 1980, Morning's at Seven is Paul Osborn's homage to the ordinary, its story a sliver of suburban life circa 1922. The four elderly Gibbs sisters have lived within walking distance of one another in the same small Midwestern town their whole lives, swapping gossip and bickering. When Ida Gibbs' 40-year-old son, Carl -- who still lives with his parents -- brings home his fiance of seven years, the ladies begin assessing their lives and making changes they've put off for decades. (The play's peculiar title is taken from that famous verse in Robert Browning's "Pippa Passes": "The year's at 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.")
The excellent ensemble actually improves on Osborn's chatty script. Betsy Beard is superb as the sassy spinster who may or may not have been having an affair with her sister's husband all these years. She slowly transforms Arry from a snappy terrier into a scrappy bulldog. Peggy Lord Chilton makes Esther -- whose husband disapproves of her dimwitted family -- sympathetic without any cute grandmotherliness, and Pamela Fields creates variations from a tiny palette. As written, her speeches tend to sound alike, but subtle differences in her performance help unfold Ida's story. No less commanding is Jacqueline Gaston, whose airy voice is like a musical instrument and whose delivery of the simplest lines is filled with Cora's anguish and joy. Robyn Allen and Chris Vaglio hold their own in this notable company, and Jack Ritschel's efficiency and versatility proves that there's no such thing as a small part.
Lois Myers' vintage costumes, particularly the dowdy flowered shifts worn by the older women, help to define each character: Mild-mannered Homer's bland business suit and oddball Uncle David's equally audacious one telegraph these men's personalities before they ever utter a word.
Director Karla Koskinen smartly underplays scenes that threaten to curdle into sentimentality or blaze with bombast, and the staging benefits further from Jaye's elaborate and loving evocation of 1920s suburban homes. Faced with the challenge of creating two full-scale suburban "painted ladies," he's built a pair of Victorian clapboard houses so true to life that I was convinced that there were rooms and furniture beyond their doorways.
There's little here in the way of suspense, and the yuks are more gentle chuckles than belly laughs. But Morning's at Seven is a pleasant, amusing story that sends us floating dreamily into a vanished world; a trifle kept afloat by an amazing cast.
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