Do you want to see a gorgeously constructed play? In Paul Osborn's 1939 comedy Morning's at Seven, currently being staged by Stray Dog Theatre, all eight members of the Gibbs family (four sisters, three husbands, one son, plus a fiancée who's been trying to force her way in for twelve years) have needs that drive the action forward like constantly colliding bumper cars. Yet the plot is so well designed by author Osborn, there's not one moment where the story line isn't crystal clear.
At the same time, that story is so beguiling that it's possible viewers might overlook the script's seditious nature. This textured tale of love, domination and jealousy is constantly pricking at the fabric of sacred institutions like marriage and family. Osborn underscores the maxim that appearances can be deceiving, for although our multiple protagonists seem to be as simple as Mom's apple pie, their under-story concerns two generations of sexual indiscretions.
Morning's at Seven is an actors' showcase, and there are many charming moments in this production directed by Gary F. Bell. As Arry, the desperate spinster sister who has lived all her adult life as an unwelcome guest in her sister Cory's house, Sally Eaton can deliver a family-disrupting threat so crisply, you might think she's biting into peanut brittle. Liz Hopefl's Cory, who wants Arry out of the house so she can spend her remaining years alone with husband Thor (David K. Gibbs), has a way of wrapping herself in her own arms as if she's enveloped in a straightjacket of her own making. If Cory is trapped by circumstance, her sister Esther (Suzanne Greenwald) is finding a new release. When Esther learns that her marriage to an insufferable boor (Chuck Lavazzi) might be over, Greenwald captivates us with a liberating rendition of "O sole mio." Eleanor Mullin's moment to shine comes when she realizes that if 40-year-old son Homer (Shawn White) finally marries, she'll no longer be buying his underwear.
Then there is Colleen M. Backer as Myrtle Brown, Homer's long-suffering fiancée, who sees all her years of waiting begin to crumble. When Backer gets into the zone of a character, as she did two years ago in The Importance of Being Earnest, last summer in You Can't Take It With You and now again here, she settles into a groove that surpasses acting. She simply is Myrtle — poignant, awkward and even a little scary.
But there are questions about this staging. Why, for instance, has the time frame been moved from 1922, where Osborn set it, to 1939 (the year the play debuted)? The shenanigans that ensue in this small Midwestern town seem out of place in the Depression-era 1930s. And here's another seemingly minor yet bewildering change: In Act One we see Cory eating a banana. In the script, Act Two begins with Cory's husband Thor (David K. Gibbs) eating yet another banana and suddenly realizing that he hates it. In that character-revealing moment we realize how henpecked Thor is. But because director Bell has switched the Act Two fruit to an apple, the setup is wasted, the moment lost.
The surreal set is questionable enough. But there can be no question that eliminating the large tree where Homer and his father (Bob Harvey) go to meditate also eliminates Homer's most important moment (not to mention his single biggest laugh) in the first act. Finally, as the play winds down the production does not so much end; it simply stops. This is a jarring and abrupt way to bring such an enchanted evening to a close. None of these changes proves fatal, but as Myrtle might put it, they are all "discordant notes."
Nevertheless, in spirit Morning's at Seven remains a rare example of authentic Americana, an evening of indigenous theater on an elevated level with The Front Page, Our Town and Picnic. In rendering a specific time, Morning's at Seven has become timeless. If you've not yet had the pleasure of meeting the Gibbs sisters, this is your moment.