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Theater | STAGE REVIEW

An Era of Melodrama

'Morning Star,' born in 1940, is revived for a new look at family, love, idealism and tragedy.

January 01, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

You learn within minutes that one of the Felderman sisters works in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Two more sisters are employed there by Act 3. You can count down the minutes till disaster, and you can be pretty sure it will strike soon after mother Rebecca (Eileen T'Kaye) offers up a toast to America: "Because we know only good can come to us here."

The next day, March 25, 1911, is not only the day of the horrific Triangle factory fire that killed 146 workers, it is also the day before the wedding of the youngest Felderman sister, Esther (Ariana Navarre).

Yes, heartstrings are plucked in "Morning Star," an interesting piece of theater history being resurrected at the Colony Theatre in Silver Lake. This melodrama appeared briefly on Broadway in 1940, the debut of playwright Sylvia Regan. It's an amalgam of bygone sentimental dramatic conventions, a play in which a man waits patiently for 20 years in order to marry the woman he loves. If it had been a movie, it would have starred Norma Shearer.

"Morning Star" is situated not so much on New York's Lower East Side as in the precise center of Jewish immigrant drama, in the land of passionate labor debates. Themes of idealism and justice are thickly applied--one character is a shop owner who uses union labor (a good person) and another is a shop owner who does not (bad person).

Another character cares nothing about labor; his name is Irving Tashman, a stand-in for Irving Berlin. In this way, the playwright sweeps in more strands of the immigrant experience. The only anticipated issue Regan avoids is assimilation--the Feldermans never argue about being too Jewish or not Jewish enough.

Quaint and sentimental, "Morning Star" delivers a powerful fantasy quotient in the form of the perfect mother, warmly embodied by T'Kaye. No matter what trouble befalls her family, Rebecca never has a bad human instinct. One of her daughters matures into a world-class emotional castration expert, but this happens clearly in spite of, not because of, a mother who is the salt of the earth.

Sentiment is favored over credibility. We are asked to believe, for instance, that the protective Irving (Gil Bernardy) won't allow his wife, Fanny (Denise Dillard), to sing in a nightclub but will allow her to work long hours at the Triangle factory.

Exposition and character detail are conveyed in dialogue as stark as an announcement. Typical is this proclamation from Harry (Kelly Foran), one of the men who marries into the family: "I'm taking an examination myself in a few weeks to teach school. It means more to me than anything in the world!"

Director Scott Segall makes a dependable ensemble out of the large cast. Francesca Casale particularly stands out as she transforms from nice Jewish girl into she-bitch extraordinaire.

In the end, "Morning Star" is too familiar and limp to stand on its merits. But it does hold some value as a lost patch of melodrama from another era.

BE THERE

"Morning Star," Colony Studio Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive, Silver Lake, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 8. $23. (213) 665-3011. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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