The old folks in Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven” are anything but serene and snoozy. Scandal, marital unrest, madness, and even (gasp) sex crop up in the demure Midwestern town that serves as the setting for this gentle back porch comedy set in the late 1920s.
Late-life crises bloom in this play, enchantingly staged at Olney Theatre Center by director John Going, and the predictable ebb-and-flow of small town living gets a seismic jolt, but the reassuring charm of Mr. Osborn’s comedy is that you know everything will be set right by the end.
“Morning’s At Seven” makes you nostalgic for a time of big Sunday suppers, flowery housedresses, men who don suit jackets for dinner, close-knit families, and non-electronic communication — but without one whit of sentimentality. There is plenty of emotion, but none of the feelings are cloying or corny. It is a play about the many visages of loneliness, and how you can still feel all alone in the world even when surrounded by loved ones.
Mr. Osborn’s work is an extended hen party between four quirky sisters who all live within shouting distance of one another, as evidenced by James Wolk’s cozy set featuring two Victorian-style rear porches and a shared back yard. Cora (Anne Stone), known as “the mildest sister,” feels lonely in her marriage to her great-hearted husband Thor (the lively and gentlemanly John Dow), and must compete for his affections with her unmarried sister, Arry (Nancy McDoniel), who has lived with the couple for 40 years.
“Poor Arry, all alone in the world,” Thor is frequently known to say, and the manipulative and over-dramatic Arry uses that statement to her benefit.
Next door is Ida (Sally Kemp), “the slowest sister,” a bundle of nerves who is deathly afraid of being by herself. She has a lot on her plate — a combustive mama’s boy of a son, Homer (Andrew Polk), 40 years old and unmarried; and her woebegone husband Carl (Dane Knell), who is prone to “spells” where he questions his purpose in life then wanders off looking for the place where he lost his way.
Down the road a piece is Esty (Halo Wines), “the smartest sister,” a flinty and fun-loving sort who is under the thumb of her over-educated husband, David (James Slaughter). A sneering academic, David has denounced the whole family as woefully ignorant and wants his wife to have nothing to do with them. So, Esty must sneak off for the companionship she craves with her sisters.
The family’s pattern of easy-going gossip and pervasive snooping is disrupted when a stranger arrives in their midst — Homer’s girlfriend of five years, Myrtle (Paula Gruskiewicz), a fluttery and ditheringly perky woman who tries so earnestly to be liked you just want to reach up and pat her on the back. Myrtle is the catalyst for all sorts of hell breaking loose in the family, with long-kept resentments and secrets bubbling to the surface.
“Morning’s at Seven” is a domestic comedy that gets funnier as the family’s bonds unravel in the second act; instead of “blood is thicker than water,” the clan motto seems to be “every man for himself.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the characters of Homer and Myrtle, who fall apart with spirited daffiness and comic inventiveness. Mr. Polk is a powder-keg of repression and frustration as the socially graceless Homer, whose attempts to assert himself result in a fusillade of fits and tics. Miss Gruskiewicz’s breathless, breakneck portrayal of Myrtle is the hyperactive terrier to Homer’s plodding basset hound.
The senior members acquit themselves well, especially Miss Wines as the sharp, aching Esty who wishes she could live happily in an ivory tower like her husband David, but who realizes that her sisters are her lifeblood. Miss Wines is strong and canny, and shines in the lovely reconciliation scene with David, played with masterful arrogance by Mr. Slaughter. The ensemble cast works beautifully as a family, conveying the messy intimacy and banked resentments of relatives living in close proximity.
For all the closeness in “Morning’s at Seven,” the play’s overarching feeling is that of tender solitude. The characters may be constantly in each other’s hair, but they are alone in their grief, their insecurities, and in the secrets they keep closely wrapped inside.
WHAT: “Morning’s at Seven” by Paul Osborn
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 30.
TICKETS: $15 to $39
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS