For his first production since “Ragtime,” Frank Galati has chosen to revive an obscure piece of theater realism by a largely forgotten American playwright. First seen on Broadway some 60 years ago, Sylvia Regan’s “Morning Star” creaks loudly with plot contrivances, not to mention some heavy-handed social(ist) observations. A mediocre production would be tough to endure, but thanks to the freshness and creativity of Galati’s direction, the play emerges here as a perfectly playable and surprisingly emotional work. A couple of superior classics aside, “Morning Star” is just as rewarding as most plays from Odets or Hellman from the same period.
The usual Steppenwolf celebrity names are absent from the show, which probably limits the commercial viability of a play that lives on primarily in anthologies of Jewish-American writing. But while transfer prospects are far from boffo, this outstanding Chi acting ensemble certainly deserves to be seen elsewhere. With his typically distinctive and humanistic approach, Galati has turned Regan’s socialist potboiler into a truthful and emotional depiction of poverty-stricken Jewish-American New Yorkers in the early 20th century.
Avoiding the pitfalls of a potentially static, single-setting script, Galati’s production is probably most remarkable for the constant movement of its actors. Working against a splendid re-creation of the Lower East Side courtesy of Santo Loquasto, Galati’s actors gossip across the stage, interacting with each other and playing out their tough lives with an honesty that carries an almost Chekhovian complexity (which seems to flow more from Galati than from Regan).
At the center of the play is Becky Felderman (Shannon Cochran), struggling to hold her family together amidst internal dissent and external disaster. At the end of the first act, two of Becky’s daughters are caught in the Triangle ShirtWaist factory fire, which takes the life of Esther (Elizabeth Ledo). Survivor Fanny marries a struggling songwriter (David New), which irritates the diabolic sister Sadie (Jenny Bacon), who wanted the Tin Pan Alley dreamer all for herself. Son Hymie, meanwhile, is taken by the war.
Through all of this strife, Becky deals with the persistent romantic attentions of her border, Aaron Greenspan, who eventually finds business success for himself and happiness for his love.Since it’s the nefarious schemes of Sadie that move most of the second-act plot, Bacon’s richly textured acting stands out. She exquisitely avoids the easy choices and turns in a superb performance that serves as an excellent contrast to Cochran’s necessarily more sentimental work. There’s also a wonderful cameo to enjoy from Yasen Peyankov, an emerging Bulgarian actor whose work here is both funny and emotionally evocative.
It’s a pity that little attention has been paid to Regan, who gracefully combines socio-political concerns with familial drama. But how nice for this American treasure to have Galati in her corner in her twilight years. The Gotham-based Regan, now 91, flew to Chicago for the Steppenwolf production, and had good reason to be pleased with what she found.