Phoebe Flaherty, the blowsy protagonist at the heart of Alice Cannon's comedy-drama Great Day in the Morning, is not only having a bad hair day -- she's having one of the all-around worst days of her life. Phoebe is a 35-year-old Irish bootlegger in 1929 St. Louis. She can't spell, can't add and is foolishly superstitious. After two marriages and one dead-end affair, Phoebe might be best described as a lost soul. At the very least she's a lost character, because the rich and utterly beguiling play she inhabits has been out of sight for more than four decades.
Some background: In the early 1960s, George C. Scott, having already tasted celebrity for his film roles in Anatomy of a Murder and The Hustler, decided to start the (short-lived) Theatre of Michigan Company. In 1962 Scott produced two plays on Broadway. The first, General Seeger by Ira Levin, was a fiasco that closed after two performances. Four weeks later Alice Cannon's Great Day in the Morning, which starred Scott's earthy wife Colleen Dewhurst, eked out thirteen performances. In his 1974 memoir Jose Quintero, the show's director, recalled Great Day as "a beautiful play." At the same time Dewhurst told an interviewer, "I think years from now people will realize what a great play it is." But they didn't, because from its 1962 closing until this current ACT Inc. production, Great Day has not been seen.
While the play might not be "great," it is an ambitious and always intriguing first effort. As a first-time playwright, Cannon can be faulted for trying to tell too much story with too many ancillary characters. But her saga of life among the lowly is written in the poignant, anguished style of William Inge (who by 1962 was much out of vogue). In its intimate insights into women, Great Day reminds one of Inge's Picnic. In its use of simple theatrics, it calls to mind Inge's Bus Stop. This is an old-fashioned play in which character supercedes plot.
Mostly it's a portrait of the blustery, frightened Phoebe. Tomorrow her seven-year-old niece, Sis (the wide-eyed, all-seeing Isobella Ibur), will be attending her first Holy Communion. Phoebe, who has not set foot in a church in eighteen years, has promised to be there. But will she really go? It sounds like the simple conundrum that's handled with charm in Life with Father. But as this play proceeds through its 24-hour cycle, we come to appreciate that the communion service is just the tip of the iceberg. That impending ceremony compels Phoebe to confront some glaring truths about her highly undisciplined life.
Phoebe is the role of a lifetime. She fusses, feuds and brawls, plays baseball, recites poetry, sings honky-tonk and nurses a pregnant cat. As a bootlegger, she literally gets to cry in her own beer. Phoebe is such a dynamic life force that the concern here is this: Will an actress be able to summon up enough energy to play this role, or will the steamroller role play the actress? Not to worry. Anna Blair delivers a bodacious, modulated performance that never seems forced or strained. Which is to say that there's no "acting" to be seen here; rather, Blair becomes Phoebe.
Thanks to the attentive, character-driven direction of RFT theater critic Deanna Jent, Blair is supported by a bevy of solid performances. Among the many standouts, Tom McAtee breathes warmth and empathy into Phoebe's estranged brother-in-law, Ray Shea brings humor and innocent density to Phoebe's overstuffed beau and Nancy Lewis finds the soul of a character intended to be portrayed by a 70-year-old African American (which Lewis is not). As Phoebe's sister Alice, a character so nuanced that you could turn the play inside out and make Alice the lead, Deborah Sharn could hardly be bettered. She and Blair work in lovely harmony.
There's wonderful attention to detail here -- and not just in the acting. When beer begins to dribble out of empty bottles as they're being moved from the house, you know that the entire production has been lovingly rendered.
Midway through Act Two Alice cries out for "a little mercy." Four decades ago one might have made the same request for the play itself; instead it was doomed to obscurity. Now St. Louis theatergoers are being given the rare opportunity to share in a resurrection. Great Day in the Morning serves up a grand evening of theater.