Extended families can be such a blessing--sometimes a mixed blessing, as two local theater productions remind us. American playwright Paul Osborn's charming, poignant comedy Morning's at Seven and Irish playwright Brian Friel's dismal drama Wonderful Tennessee both step gingerly on the minefield of sibling tensions. But while the first is fresh and funny, the second is self-indulgent and none too helpful.
The best thing about Morning's at Seven, at the RiverTree Theatre, is its picturesque humanity. Cora (played with delicate sweetness by Joline Black) lives with her husband, Thor, and her youngest sister, Arry, right next door to her older sister Ida and Ida's husband, Carl. All the action takes place in Cora's and Ida's twin backyards, where identical swings sway on identical porches. The women's older sister, Esty (Willa Hatcher plays her with self-assured wisdom), is married to a cranky old college prof, David, who thinks everyone in his wife's family is a moron--except for Carl (a sad and funny Dana McCarthy), who frequently has "spells" in which he is seized by melancholy and questions the meaning of life. The mean-spirited David tries to prevent Esty from visiting her sisters, but there's just something about family that won't be denied, no matter how much of a bully an in-law husband may be.
When Esty sneaks off one morning to see her sisters, David (Pat Mahoney's crotchety performance is superb) pursues her and orders her to live on the second floor of their house from now on. He's attempting to enforce a kind of in-house separation, but he fails to intimidate this amiable old lady, instead making her feel free for the first time in her life. Cut off from her husband, she loves chatting with her sisters. She likes the idea of going to the movies when she wants to, and the sudden release from David's tyranny goes right to her head.
And it isn't long before the newly liberated Esty gets involved in the complexities of her sisters' lives. Her nephew Homer, for instance, has been courting the same woman for twelve years--why won't he leave his mother and marry Myrtle? Cora hates her sister Arry (Jane Allen is a terrific nag) because the younger woman has come between Cora and her husband. Meanwhile, Arry feels she has wasted her life pining for her sister's husband and wishes Cora were dead.
It might sound like a soap opera, but playwright Osborn's approach is funny, insightful and kind. Even the most ordinary personality is a complex flow of goodness and selfishness, intelligence and foolishness, and Osborn snags those natural currents of life as his characters bob and float past each other. But it's the RiverTree's excellent ensemble cast and Mary Chandler's smart, easy direction that brings these souls to life. It's amazing how interesting "dull" lives can actually be in the hands of the right playwright and company.
Wonderful Tennessee, on the other hand, fails to bring its lackluster group of middle-aged siblings and their spouses fully to life. Despite a talented cast at the Morrison Theatre and highly competent direction by Ruth Seeber, Friel's new play is too much of a whinefest to build much sympathy for its characters.
In Friel's bad-tempered tale, three related married couples go off together on an overnight trip. Terry is secretly in love with his wife's sister, Angela. Terry's own sister, Trish, is bearing up under the horror of the imminent death of her husband, George, who has three months to live as the story opens. Angela's husband, Frank, is a failure who depends on Terry for money so he can write a book about time measurement and its effect on history. Terry's wife is a nervous creature fresh out of a nursing home who thinks only of herself.
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Terry has purchased a mysterious island and wants his friends to see it. But the group never makes it to the island. They're stuck together overnight on the dock, telling stories, mocking and hurting each other in the way only family members and spouses can. It is a ghastly sight. And though generosity and tenderness have their place here, one has to wonder why these spoiled middle-class types don't just behave.
Rick Bernstein gives an impressive performance as Terry, the slightly sleazy benefactor. Cody Alexander as Trish and Michelle Grimes as Angela are terrific. But playwright Friel fails to rise to the occasion. He makes his characters take themselves and their problems too seriously and, worse yet, asks us to do the same. The only character worthy of our concern--the dying George--barely speaks a word. And all the false merriment meant to mask a multitude of annoyances is itself annoying. What these people need is a good parodistic raking over the coals, not indulgence in their self-pity.
Morning's at Seven, through June 22 at the RiverTree Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 825-8150.
Wonderful Tennessee, through June 23 at the Morrison Theatre, 110 Stone Street, Morrison,697-0620.