While the Landers Theatre is dark through the summer months, local theater-lovers can watch live stage performances at MSU Tent Theatre, and in the intimate "so close you might get some on you" venue of Center Stage at Wilhoit Plaza, home of Springfield Contemporary Theatre. Opening tonight (July 8) and running through July 24 is Paul Osborn's charming 1939 slice of middle-Americana, Morning's at Seven.
Director Robert Bradley notes the title, with its apostrophe (as in "morning is at seven") derives from Robert Browning's 1841 verse drama Pippa Passes, which includes the famous passage "Morning's at seven, the lark's on the wing, the snail's on the thorn, God's in his heaven--all's right with the world." The play concerns four ageing sisters in late-1930s small-town America, who have not only lived in close physical proximity for virtually their entire lives, but they are very close emotionally: Esther (or "Esty"), the oldest of the four; second-oldest Cora; Aaronetta, nicknamed "Arry;" ; and Ida. Three of them are married, the fourth, Arry, is an "old maid." She lives with Cora and her husband. Ida and her husband live right next door, and Esty lives a block and a half up the hill.
Maxine Whittaker plays Esty, who she says is "the smartest" sister, "so they can look up to me for advice. I'm married to a college professor--who's a grump!"
One of the things Bob Bradley worked on with the cast through the rehearsal period was "the closeness that the four actors needed in order to be the four sisters." Sort of a team-building exercise, in other words. But that was relatively easy to accomplish, says Maxine Whittaker. "Everybody in the show, at some point, has worked in a production together--we've known each other for years." So the cameraderie, among not just the women but the men in the cast, was achieved quite naturally.
Married couple Shawn and Gretchen Teague play 40-year-old Homer and his fiancee of 12 years, Myrtle. "Homer's mother Ida has decided that it's time that he get married" and pop the question, says Bob Bradley. The story revolves around how the rest of the family are going to get Homer to propose to Myrtle, and what the consequences will be if and when he does. "Suddenly Ida has the realization that he'll be leaving home!"
Bob Bradley and Maxine Whittaker both make sure to remark on the "veteran" cast and production staff for this show--Bob doesn't hesitate to call it a "geriatric" production. he says if you add up the collective ages of all the participants it comes out to 756 years! "In fact," he continues, "this is the reason I chose the play. We have a lot of senior actors, talented, and they don't always get a chance to do top-notch roles. And this was one of the plays that we could do that. Maxine adds, "That seems to be standard procedure: there are a lot of theaters that do not acknowledge the older actors. And yet Britain does--you see the productions in Great Britain and there are always those character actors that are just delightful to watch and to listen to. They have lovely faces, they have expressions--they've lived. And when they display an emotion, you know that they've probably felt it at some point."
Bradley goes on to provide some background on Paul Osborn. He started writing plays for Broadway in the 1920's--actually he specialized in crafting stage adaptations of other material. "He went on to Hollywood and became a very successful script writer, again mostly of adaptations--Bridge on the River Kwai is one of his." Morning's at Seven was, in fact, Paul Osborn's sole original play... and it was his favorite. Sadly its first production on Broadway in 1939 closed after only about 100 performances. It was some 40 years later, in 1980, that Morning's at Seven was rediscovered by a new generation and given a new production which ran for some 500 performances. Bob Bradley thinks it's wonderful that "in the last eight years of his life (Osborn died in 1988), he saw success for the play that he loved." (There was also a single TV adaptation in 1956 on The Alcoa Hour anthology series.)
Morning's at Seven plays Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm at Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza, corner of Robberson and Pershing in downtown Springfield. Tickets are available at the Springfield Contemporary Theatre box office, 831-8001, or at www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org. And, Bob Bradley adds, if you're 90 years old or older (and can prove it!), you get in free.