THURSDAY, July 21 — Originally staged on Broadway in 1939, Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven” — now playing at the Purple Rose Theatre Co. — is a bleak seriocomic representation of the existential emptiness of gossipy, small town Midwestern life.
The play introduces us to four aging sibling sisters, two with eccentric spouses. These are people we somehow vaguely remember but that we have never actually met. They struggle to find the words to describe what we now might call elder-life crises. The sisters’ identity is now defined primarily by their being retired from work. They are defeated daily by the boring sameness of their ordinary, everyday lives.
In one household, a spinster sister lives in a complicated long-term accommodation with an older sister and her husband — an arrangement about to end after forty long years.
Right next door, a husband announces that he is separating from his wife, the third sister, to go live with his philosophical brother-in-law in an attempt to find the meaning of life. This brother-in law is married to the fourth sister, but is separating from her by dividing their house into two apartments.
Finally, we are introduced to a forty-something couple, not married despite a years of dating. This is the son of our first couple, still living with his parents, and his bride-to-be.
Confused? Be patient; the plot quickens. Sub-plots emerge and bounce off each other adroitly.
Laural Merlington, as the lonely old maid Aaronetta Gibbs, projects volumes of clenched-fist anger and tight-lipped disappointment.She spars with her sister, Cora Swanson, (Ruth Crawford), for the affections of Cora’s husband, Theodor. Crawford brings a flinty resolve to her role, and she and Merlington are evenly matched in this classic bout.
Meanwhile, our bride-to-be is determined to marry and naively ignores the eccentricities of this family of eight, who are immersed and enmeshed in their own issues. Rhiannon Ragland, as Myrtle Brown, manages to submerge her attractive self in the dour chocolate and horsey-textured costuming of Suzanne Young. Ragland’s Myrtle tries valiantly to engage in neutral conversations with family members who have few conversational skills.
Rusty Mewha plays Myrtle’s suitor, Homer Bolton, and brings a remote, robotic strangeness to his character. He’s awkward and stiff — and surprisingly funny.
Carl Bolton and David Crampto, the two quirky brother-in-laws, are played by Hugh Maguire and Tom Whalen. Carl has catatonic spells, while David is a dapper gentleman with an intellectual scorn for the family he’s married into.
Whalen’s Carl holds the key to the play — the understanding that all of these people have lost a sense of purpose and will to live.
This is one of Purple Rose’s larger casts, and director Michelle Mountain pulls carefully crafted work out of all of them. “Morning at Sevens” is a glimpse back in time, to what life was like before psycho-babble jargon permeated everyone’s consciousness, before every lost soul struggling to find purpose was given a diagnostic label and a mental illness classification as to where they fit in the taxonomy of things.
"Morning's at Seven"
Purple Rose Theatre Co.
Through Aug. 27
Tickets start at $25/$3 discount for seniors, teachers and military/50 percent discount for students
136 Park St., Chelsea
(734) 433-7673, purplerosetheatre.org