The Peccadillo Theater Company prides itself on rescuing forgotten American plays from the library shelf. Last season’s “Room Service” was a grand success, complete with an extended-run transfer. The troupe’s current offering, Sylvia Regan’s 1940 family drama “Morning Star,” is an earnestly produced and enjoyable soap opera, but this is no “Awake and Sing!”
The similarities to Odets’ 1935 masterwork are more than coincidental. Odets and Regan came from the same world and were family friends. Regan started as a teenage actress and moved on to become a press agent (with Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater among her clients) before writing “Morning Star.”
Within the year, Regan married Abraham Ellstein, one of the Yiddish Theater’s star composers. (“Morning Star” headlined Molly Picon, the Yiddish Theater’s equivalent to Mary Martin; Ellstein contributed music for two fragmentary songs.) Ellstein and Regan later collaborated on one flop Broadway musical, but Regan’s garment district play “The Fifth Season” was a sizable hit in 1953. The playwright died in 2003 at age 94.
Kitchen-table comedy-drama centers on Becky Felderman (Susan Greenhill), a widow living in a Broome Street tenement with four children. The signs of a novice playwright are evident from the first minute, when the 16-year-old ingenue pleads with her mother for permission to take a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Anyone with a sense of New York history — and, certainly, everyone in the audience in 1940 — immediately knows what happens to Esther. (Regan’s mother was a Triangle seamstress, but wasn’t there the day of the historic conflagration; she didn’t work on the Sabbath.)
Action then skips to the outbreak of war in 1917; Becky’s teenage son (a role created in 1940 by 16-year-old Sidney Lumet) enlists, and guess what happens to him. We then skip to the depths of the Depression, where in the final scene Becky loses her remaining daughters. One moves to Hollywood with her philandering husband; the other — who in the first act had yelled, “I hope you die” to Esther, as she left that morning for Triangle — Becky finally disowns, and none too soon.
The 12-person cast list is filled out by a lodger-turned-capitalist in love with the not-so-merry widow; a revolutionary firebrand who spouts lines about the bourgeoisie and winds up emigrating to Russia; an African-American maid called Pansy who turns up out of nowhere; and an idealistic schoolteacher type who was affianced to the good daughter — Mama was kneading dough for challah for the wedding when the fire broke out — and later marries the bad one. Becky sees him as a second son, so naturally he develops a fatal illness before the curtain falls. Becky is described several times in the play as a pessimist, but the author certainly piled on the travails.
“Morning Star” received mixed reviews and failed in 1940, running eight weeks at the Longacre. Subsequently, it was given a 1988 on-site production (under the title “The Golden Door”) at New York’s Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. This was followed by a high-profile Chicago mounting in 1999 directed by Frank Galati at Steppenwolf.
Director Dan Wackerman and his cast manage to turn the soap into an enjoyable evening. Most of the roles are well played, although Greenhill appears a dozen years too old for the young widow. (Regan describes her as 37, “with a girlish, alive quality.”) This might be part of the problem at Peccadillo. This Becky seems old at the beginning and positively grandmotherly in the final scene, 21 years later; nowhere do we sense the core of steel that has enabled her to support four children in a world of sweatshop tenements. Designers do as well as they can under the obvious budgetary constraints.
Even so, audiences in the market for unassuming old-style entertainment with juicy characters and plenty of schmaltz are likely to find “Morning Star” mighty pleasing.