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THEATER REVIEW : Quaint '30s Comedy Still Rings True : Paul Osborn's old folks comedy, "Morning's at Seven," at South Coast Repertory, serves up laughs based on the petty quarrels and quirks of families.

September 13, 1993|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

You don't escape quaintness in the handsome revival of Paul Osborn's "Morning's at Seven" that opened over the weekend at South Coast Repertory. Just as it was commonplace on stage at the time the play was written (the late 1930s), and in life at the time in which it is set (1922), quaintness is built into the very fabric of this opening salvo of South Coast's 30th season in Orange County.

That's right, 30 seasons. And counting. "Morning's at Seven" may not be the most dynamic way to mark the event, but it is thoroughly in keeping with this theater's understated modus operandi. It doesn't hit you over the head with flash and splash. It bathes you in atmosphere and lets the artists do their thing.

*

Osborn's old folks comedy is thoroughly unassuming. It takes place in the back yards of two modest homes in a small Midwestern town. Chekhovian, yes, but Osborn goes Chekhov one better, looking in on the uneventful lives of not three but four sisters.

There is feisty Cora (Kate Williamson) and her husband Theodore or Thor, for short (Robert Symonds), who live in one house; there is rumpled Ida (Angela Paton) and her husband Carl (Tom Troupe), who live in the other; Aaronetta (Patricia Fraser), the unmarried sister who lives with Cora and Thor, and Esther (Priscilla Pointer), married to David (Jack Sydow), a retired college professor who has little use for his wife's sisters or their husbands and threatens to banish Esther to the second floor of their home if she so much as dares to visit her family.

Esther dares, which lends spice to the show and leads up to David's inevitable comeuppance. There are other complications, such as Homer (Hal Landon Jr.), Ida and Carl's 40-year-old son, who's been engaged to Myrtle Brown (Kristen Lowman) for umpteen years but can't bring himself to leave home, let alone get married. And there are the usual assortment of family secrets, including Carl's "spells" (panic attacks), Aaronetta's peeves (emotional blackmail) and David's hortatory stances.

By any yardstick, "Morning's at Seven" is a small play. An old chestnut. Funny William Inge.

Its humor is focused on the petty quarrels, quirks and wistful minutiae of families. It was swamped by the competition when it opened on Broadway in November, 1939, but it has endured against all odds. A reason for its popularity through the years, especially recent ones, is that it is as much a comedy about character as about anything.

This makes it an actors' play. What holds our attention is not the disposable quaintness, but the candor, toughness and tolerance of its aging inhabitants--the "ordinary people," in Osborn's words, who prove once more that there is no such thing as ordinary.

Aside from the tasty, vivid performances one has come to expect at South Coast Repertory, the design of the Costa Mesa production heightens its flavor: a meticulously naturalistic set from Michael Devine, with trees and grass and stumps; telling costumes from Ann Bruice, and that lazy light of summer from lighting designer Paulie Jenkins.

*

If "Morning's at Seven" is something of a fading sepia print, a place and time enhanced by memory, production values at South Coast reinforce the notion.

Martin Benson, who has shared the artistic leadership of this theater with partner David Emmes for all 30 seasons, has directed the show. He is a master of Americana--remember his "Holy Days"?--who knows how to extract substance from his actors and delivers a beautifully calibrated staging: unhurried, detailed, well timed.

The women are the most finely drawn. Paton, Pointer, Fraser and Williamson lend these sisters a genetic link. They share a grand knockabout spirit and a knack for problem-solving, no matter how different those problems.

Lowman, stuck with gushy, over-reaching Myrtle, Homer's marriage-hungry fiancee and the lone outsider desperately trying to get in, makes putting a good face on things a masterpiece of yearning and denial.

If the men--except for Homer, who clearly blossoms in the course of the play--seem to serve more as complements to their consorts, it is only because Osborn has defined his women so strongly. These men own their souls, however, and the actors who play them know it.

They cannot, of course, turn a light comedy into something deeper, but they give their audience all that's there: an entertaining evening full of that much-maligned word charm, as much thanks to Osborn and the people he has created as to the dimension each performer adds--and to the director who has so deftly led them.

* "Morning's at Seven," South Coast Repertory, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 10. $25-$35; (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Robert Symonds: Theodore Swanson

Kate Williamson: Cora Swanson

Patricia Fraser: Aaronetta Gibbs

Angela Paton: Ida Bolton

Tom Troupe: Carl Bolton

Hal Landon Jr.: Homer Bolton

Kristen Lowman: Myrtle Brown

Priscilla Pointer: Esther Crampton

Jack Sydow: David Crampton

Revival of a 1939 play by Paul Osborn. Director Martin Benson. Set Michael Devine. Lights Paulie Jenkins. Costumes Ann Bruice. Wigmistress Victoria Wood. Sound Garth Hemphill. Production manager Michael Mora. Stage manager Bonnie Lorenger.

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