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Morning’s at Seven

"Morning's at Seven" is a sturdy, old-fashioned play with a nice moral tone, a few laughs and a fine cast playing characters comfortable with their senior-citizen status. Its appeal is more demographic than literary -- the average graying theatergoer can see a play with aging as central theme that's neither traumatic nor embarrassing.

“Morning’s at Seven” is a sturdy, old-fashioned play with a nice moral tone, a few laughs and a fine cast playing characters comfortable with their senior-citizen status. Its appeal is more demographic than literary — the average graying theatergoer can see a play with aging as central theme that’s neither traumatic nor embarrassing. Were the largely forgotten 1939 legiter’s revival not a Broadway hit (nine Tony noms earlier this year), the odds against Paul Osborn’s play being produced on the regional level are considerably high. And were it not for the admirable cast, particularly the convincing women, under the calming direction of Daniel Sullivan, most theatergoers would wonder why the Ahmanson is bothering with a work so irrelevant in contempo theater.

“Morning’s” is a parlor comedy set in the pristine backyard of two adjacent houses where three of the four Gibbs sisters live, two of them married, the other a lifelong single. It is 1938, but other than the clothing and references to money, it could be any time between WWI and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.

The sheen is Rockwellian; these retirees live simply and comfortably in a small Midwestern town. They are pleased, for the most part, by their familial proximity, but as the play unfolds over the course of a day and a half, the suffocating nature of being so close rears its nasty head. Ultimately, Osborn delights in the idea of a married couple growing old together, and when they go to sleep at night, they rest unburdened by relatives or offspring.

To get to that point, Osborn strips the air of Americana naturalness to show a family wrestling with demons. Parents and aunts are waiting for the arrival of Homer Bolton (Stephen Tobolowsky), who is finally bringing his fiancee of seven years, Myrtle Brown (Julie Hagerty), home to meet the family. Homer’s father, Carl (Paul Dooley), is plagued by self-doubt, manifested as he leans, forehead first, on a tree. (Sullivan plays all references to mental imbalance as comedy.)

Homer’s mother, Ida (Frances Sternhagen), shows more timidity than her sisters next door — Cora Swanson (Mary Louise Wilson) and Aaronetta Gibbs (Elizabeth Franz) — in her desire to meet Myrtle, and the comforting welcome wagon is driven more by the aunts and Uncle Thor (William Biff McGuire) than mom. Ida and Myrtle do have a hilarious overly polite exchange at their initial meeting, and Sternhagen and Hagerty display a wondrous sense of comic timing.

Homer is 40, his desire for marriage still questionable. There’s an empty house in town waiting for him but he continues to live at home, feeling a need to care for his mother. Once his father disappears — has he finally really gone off the deep end?, we’re told to wonder — he chooses the well-being of his mother over that of his fiancee and calls off their engagement. Unbeknownst to him, Aunt Cora has her eyes on the vacant house as a place where she can live with her husband and, more importantly, without her sister Aaronetta.

Once David Crampton (Buck Henry), who’s married to the fourth sister, Esther (Piper Laurie), arrives with Carl in tow, the family’s underriding desires start to explode. Aaronetta threatens to spill the beans on an age-old indiscretion; Thor is concerned about disrupting the household; and suddenly the marriage is back on and Homer wants his house back. The Cramptons live away from the others because David feels he is intellectually superior to the rest, and Henry plays him with a delightful mocking air of snobbery.

Sternhagen is perfectly cast — Ida is a distant cry from her aristocratic Bunny on HBO’s “Sex and the City” — and she often uses her eyes or a spring in her step to tell volumes about her character’s likes and dislikes. Laurie and Franz, also from the Gotham cast, deliver pitch-perfect readings. Laurie’s Esther has been slightly tainted by David’s snobbery, and she is the coldest of the sisters, yet she uses that as a strength when issuing her call for maintaining order. Franz has the most frenetic character, her thoughts and cravings for gossip whizzing by at a nearly uncatchable speed; her despair is the most deeply felt, her fear of being left alone, unwanted, and the lengths to which she’ll go to see that it doesn’t happen.

Newcomer Wilson struggled here and there on opening night, and she’s still trying to find her spot in places, especially the second act, when her character becomes the impetus for change. She succeeds in delivering some hateful lines, her shakiness showing in calmer moments. Hagerty’s Myrtle goes through the clearest transformation — from meek stranger to take-charge gal — and the actress makes the comedic most of it.

The men’s roles are considerably more shallow. Dooley gets over his identity crisis and turns into a pragmatist; Tobolowsky has the bug-eyed look of a fool that lingers even as he is forced to live the part of a man for once. It’s McGuire’s Thor, however, who is the rooted force in this play, and McGuire has his sense of ease down pat. Thor’s an imperturbable sort, and McGuire plays him with impeccable consistency.

John Lee Beatty’s set of two adjacent houses is as big a winner as the performances. Jane Greenwood’s costumes take a close third.

Morning’s at Seven

Ahamanson Theater; 1,600 seats; $60 top

  • Production: A Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theatre presentation of the Lincoln Center Theater production of a play in two acts by Paul Osborn. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
  • Crew: Sets; John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Scott Myers; production stage manager, Roy Harris. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
  • Cast: Theodore "Thor" Swanson - William Biff McGuire Cora Swanson - Mary Louise Wilson Aaronetta Gibbs - Elizabeth Franz Ida Bolton - Frances Sternhagen Carl Bolton - Paul Dooley Homer Bolton - Stephen Tobolowsky Myrtle Brown - Julie Hagerty Esther Crampton - Piper Laurie David Crampton - Buck Henry