August 8, 2007

(By guest blogger Bill): All's Right With the World!

Before I went up to Stockbridge, Mass., this week to see the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven, I was well aware that the first production of the play was a flop. Though Osborn had had several previous Broadway successes (The Vinegar Tree, On Borrowed Time) and would go on to become a respected screenwriter ("The Yearling", "East of Eden"); and though the 1939 premiere of the play was directed by Josh Logan and starred Dorothy Gish, it lasted only 44 performances. Morning’s at Seven really only entered the American repertory because of the smash-hit revival that the British director Vivian Matalon put together for Broadway in 1980 (Tonys for Best Revival and Best Director; 564 performances; even a TV movie--though, sadly, not with all of the revival’s original cast).

But, you know, even though it’s that 1980 production that was the standout, there’ve been several others in the New York City area (and Lord knows how many elsewhere) that were pretty successful too: a 1955 off-Broadway version ran 125 performances. In 1992, the late Ellis Rabb, a masterly director in all genres but unmatched in his ability to revivify Americana (for instance, Broadway’s 1975 mounting of
The Royal Family and no less than three Broadway productions of You Can’t Take It With You), directed a production at SUNY Purchase (NY). And in 2002, Dan Sullivan, one of our notable directors du jour, helmed a well-received production for the Lincoln Center Theater (nine Tony nominations, though no wins, and a transfer to Los Angeles).

Though the show is a true ensemble piece, it centers on four sisters (one is a spinster), three of whom live literally next door to each other, the fourth not very far away. For the 1980 revival, Matalon (with permission from the then-living author), set the play not in the troubled present of its 1939 original production, but in what Matalon felt was the more innocent, peaceful year of 1922. The plot is set in motion by the arrival of the shy, awkward 40-year-old son of one of the sisters, who is bringing home his fiancee of many, many years to finally meet his parents. Their coming dredges up old insecurities, rivalries and jealousies, most of them comic, but some quite touching. Because the four sisters are, by their own admission, more or less in their late 60s, the play has long been a magnet for actresses of “a certain age,” including some of the best the stage has had to offer. A list would include (in no particular order, and by no means exhaustively) Frances Sternhagen, Elizabeth Franz, Betty Miller, Estelle Parsons, Piper Laurie.

Until this week, I hadn’t seen the play since Mr. Matalon’s first revival (a current interview with him in the Berkshire Eagle says that he’s directed the play three times). That 1980 production was headed by Elizabeth Wilson, Nancy Marchand, Teresa Wright and Maureen O’Sullivan, and they could hardly have been improved upon. Only two things inspired me to go up to Stockbridge to see the current production: I thought it would appeal to my visiting female relative, who had never seen the play; and as it has been directed by Mr. Matalon, I felt that the production would most likely capture the spirit of his earlier version. I was right on both counts. Joyce Van Patten (in the role deliciously played in 1980 by Elizabeth Wilson) and Anita Gillette (in the O’Sullivan role) were warmly funny and touching. An actress whose work was unfamiliar to me, Lucy Martin, was just fine in the Teresa Wright role, playing it with more spine than I remembered Wright performance. Only TV's Debra Jo Rupp ("That '70s Show," "Friends") was a bit of a disappoinment, and she only a bit. Despite wearing a grey wig, she looked not only too young; she also lacked some of the beaten-down quality I expected-- and had long ago gotten from Nancy Marchand-- in a woman who'd had to cope for years with a problem husband and son. As for the rest of the cast, Paul Hecht and Jonathan Hogan were winning as two of the husbands. I did miss, though, the unique eccentricities that David Rounds and Lois de Banzie (both Tony nominees; Rounds a Tony winner) brought to their roles in 1980 as the middle-aged engaged couple.

What surprised me, though, was how much I enjoyed anew the play itself. The meaning of the title remains not altogether clear to me. It’s taken from a poem by Robert Browning that I think is worth quoting:

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven--
All’s right with the world!

Coming away from Stockbridge, that's just the way I felt! And I came away feeling, too, that the family that Osborn depicted-- quarrelsome, troubled, petty and deceiving, yet loving and lovable-- resonates with a universality that I hadn't previously completely appreciated. In
Morning's at Seven, I believe Osborn created not only a play that still works. I think he created a play that transcends its time and unidentified place, an American classic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Every revival launches a new generation's appreciation of "America's Chekhov." The Osborn family is very pleased to have Vivian Matalon again at the helm of this family story, and delighted that you enjoyed it.