Encore Michigan

Purple Rose’s “Morning’s at Seven” slows us down and grabs our hearts

Review June 26, 2016 Jenn McKee

CHELSEA, Mich.–As an exquisitely elegant prologue for the Purple Rose Theatre’s production of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven, actor Richard McWilliams strolls onto the stage and sits on one of the set’s porches to polish a pair of shoes, followed by fellow cast member Laural Merlington, who seats herself in a nearby chair to knit. The two exchange warm smiles, but they don’t say a word. Sharing a few moments of quiet together is enough.

Soon, the two actors stand and walk into the house, and then a Purple Rose apprentice appears in another part of the theater and asks us all to turn off our cell phones.

The irony isn’t lost on me, and I suspect that director Michelle Mountain pointedly intends for us to note that while we’re all now constantly overwhelmed by texts and alerts and messages – not to mention our own compulsive social media habits – the world of Morning moves at a slower pace. The play’s prologue helps transition us, in a sense, from hyperventilating to deep, full breaths. It tells us, “Like those two actors, we’re all just going to be here together for a while.”

Osborn’s family drama, set in a small Midwestern town in 1938 (the play premiered on Broadway in 1939), focuses on four sisters entering their twilight years: Esther (Susan Craves), who’s married to rigid intellectual David (Tom Whalen); Cora (Ruth Crawford), who’s married to Thor (McWilliams), and who’s housed the youngest, never-married sister, Arry (Merlington), in her home for decades; and Ida (Franette Liebow), who’s married to Carl (Hugh Maguire), and who has a 40 year old son, Homer (Rusty Mewha), still living at home.

The appropriately-named Homer is, in fact, what sets Morning’s plot in motion. When he finally brings his long-time fiancee Myrtle (Rhiannon Ragland) home to meet the family, Carl has one of his “spells” – a kind of existential un-spooling, wherein he walls himself off and questions the path he chose for his life; meanwhile, the nearby house that Carl built for Homer and Myrtle, which has been ready and empty for five years and counting, becomes the site of Cora’s hopes for living her last years with only her husband.

Though this might initially sound like the stuff of tame domestic drama, there are a number of significant tensions bubbling just beneath the surface; and because the play’s being executed by a sure-handed director (Mountain) and the Rose’s fantastic, all-star cast – they truly are phenomenal – you’ll actually probably find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat (as I was) throughout the two-and-a-half hour run-time. (There are two ten minute intermissions.)

Among the standouts are Mewha, who plays Homer as such a tightly wound, rigid, repressed, and awkward man that even though many of his lines earn laughs, you also empathize with him as a man who, like his father, feels stuck and utterly bewildered by his life’s path. While Carl’s obsessed with what he didn’t do at “the fork,” Homer seems permanently stuck at “the fork,” terrified of choosing the wrong road.

Craves perfectly embodies the big-personality big-sister who gossips and laughs loudly; assumes the role of everyone’s confidant and counselor; and tries to fix her sisters’ problems, even when she can’t find a way to solve her own. Crawford and Merlington are magnificent as sisters who must find a way to talk about a truth that might tear the whole family apart.

Sarah Pearline designed the show’s step-back-in-time set, consisting of two houses’ back porches (with screen doors), an untamed backyard, a tree (with a few flowers in front of it), and a backdrop of vinyl house panels, upon which nearby houses have been painted; Katherine Nelson’s terrific era-specific props completed the picture. Plus, Suzanne Young’s costume design, and Reid G. Johnson’s lighting, wowed me in terms of texture, palette, characterization, and meticulous attention to detail. And Brad Phillips’ sound design made the things happening off-stage feel all the more real.

All theater companies aspire, with every show they produce, to create that elusive, hypnotic magic that happens when everything – the script, the director, the cast, the tech team, etc. – falls together in exactly the right way; but only rarely does this happen.

So get to the Purple Rose Theatre now for what may be the loveliest, most life-affirming Morning you’ll ever see. (And my hands-down favorite Rose production since “A Stone Carver” in 2012.) Yes, part of the show’s pull stems from a sense of nostalgia, which can be a dangerous seductress, reductively convincing us that an earlier time was “simpler” (and thus happier and better); but if nothing else, “Morning” provides a mindful, wholly engrossing opportunity to not just turn off your phone for a while, but to also contemplate the face-to-face conversations – both meaningful and pithy – that you might have with those closest to you if we all decided to “unplug” for longer stints of time.

For we might then remember that the struggle for meaningful human connection, while often awkward and scary and fraught, nourishes the soul far more than “likes” ever will.

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