IF YOU GO
“Morning’s At Seven” is on stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern through Feb. 4. For tickets call (610) 644-3500 or go to peopleslight.org
He was a successful Broadway playwright and screenwriter, friend of Robert Frost and Elia Kazan, an incisive artist of theater and films whose life and work spanned nearly all the 20th century. Yet Paul Osborn is one of those “unknown” yet oft-produced dramatists whose work you may have seen but might not recall.
Osborn’s reputation largely rests on his charming piece of 1930’s small town nostalgia “Morning’s At Seven” a successful comedy that was largely forgotten after its success in 1939 but later frequently revived, earning him a Tony Award at age 79 for the 1980 Broadway production directed by Vivian Matalon, who also won a Tony for Best Director.
For their first production of Osborn’s play at People’s Light in Malvern, Artistic Director Abigail Adams has gathered seven of the company’s longest-serving members, most in their 60’s and 70’s and veterans of dozens of memorable performances over the years. It’s impossible to list their credits in one review but the show’s program does justice to their accomplishments.
Like his playwriting contemporaries Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, Osborn’s frequent subject is frustration. Marital, economic and personal frustration can be found at the heart of all three authors’ work, but Osborn’s comic touch and deft use of plain colloquial English can make his work more accessible than Miller’s fierce, dogged honesty and Williams’s flowery extravagance.
James Thurber, another humorist and playwright who like Osborn gradually lost his sight at the end of his career may have given a nod to Osborn’s success on Broadway by inversely titling one of his famous short stories “Evening’s At Seven” which also dealt with loneliness and choices regretted.
Osborn’s fondness and fears of small town life, drawn from his childhood in Evansville, Indiana are displayed in this story of four sisters in an unnamed Midwestern town who one summer afternoon face a crisis decades in the brewing, right in their tranquil backyards. As in the Robert Browning poem the play’s title is taken from, it might seem “God’s in His Heaven – All’s right with the world!” but there are snakes in the lawns of this tiny Eden.
In the modest house on stage left are Theodore and Cora Swanson (Peter DeLaurier and Marcia Saunders) and Cora’s unmarried sister Aaronetta (Janis Dardaris). In the right hand house are Carl and Ida Bolton (Alda Cortese and Stephen Novelli) and their son Homer (Pete Pryor). A few blocks away is the remaining sister Esther Crampton and her professor husband David (Carla Belver and Graham Smith).
Homer finally brings his long-engaged girlfriend Myrtle (Teri Lamm) to his parents’ house, which is the match that ignites the fuse that’s lain under these homes for decades.
Each sister has problems with those closest to them. Ida has to deal not only with Homer’s hyper-extended courtship of Myrtle but Carl’s periodic “spells” where he bemoans his life choices and insists he must go back to the “fork” where he chose failure instead of success.
David, a former college professor refuses to socialize with Esther’s family as he regards them all as “morons” (except for Carl) and places her off limits to parts of her own house when she insists on doing so.
Theodore and Cora have for years put up with the frustration and bitter gossip of their permanent houseguest Aaronetta but Cora has reached her limit and is about to insist that the good-natured Theodore send her younger sister packing.
There’s a real pleasure in seeing the note-perfect performances of these remarkable veterans of local theatre who have managed to make careers on the People’s Light and other stages for decades while the region’s art scene has undergone so many transformations (not all positive). Stephen Novelli who brings both charm and desperation to the role of Carl Bolton has been a company member since 1974 and been in over 100 productions. It’s always a pleasure to see Alda Cortese, who plays the fragile but determined Ida Bolton and has been a company member since 1976 and also been in over 100 productions.
This is not to slight the “youngsters” in the production. Pete Pryor as Homer and Teri Lamm as Myrtle boast their own list of strong stage performances and each are skillful at sketching long-buried emotions and needs into the faces and posture of their shy characters.
Set designer Luke Cantarella has made the Swanson and Bolton households into a detailed towering wall of Midwestern rectitude and Marla Jurglanis’s costumes evoke that long-gone era of three-piece suits and well-creased hats covering a precarious decorum.