Kansas City Actors Theatre brings together an ensemble of gifted stage veterans for its thoughtful production of Paul Osborn’s gentle 1939 comedy “Morning’s at Seven.” And the results are what you might expect: detailed character work, great timing and a level of commitment that actually elevates the material.
A show like this makes perfect sense in light of Kansas City’s deep pool of acting talent. We benefit, at the moment, from the availability of a diverse theater community that ranges from performers in their 20s to veterans old enough to collect Social Security.
Osborn’s play, set in a sleepy Midwestern town, depicts an extended family centered around four aging sisters: Cora Swanson (Deb Bluford), Aaronetta Gibbs (Merle Moores), Ida Bolton (Jeannine Hutchings) and Esther Crampton (Peggy Friesen). Cora and her husband, Theodore (Gary Neal Johnson), share a home with the unmarried Aaronetta, who became a permanent house guest decades earlier. Immediately next door is Ida’s house, where she lives with her depression-prone husband Carl (Victor Raider-Wexler) and their “shy” middle-aged son Homer (Greg Butell). All the action takes place in the shared back yard.
Within walking distance is the home Esther shares with her husband David (Mark Robbins), an acerbic academic who considers most of his in-laws “morons.”
Inescapable conclusion: These characters mastered “aging in place” before it was even a concept.
Osborn roots the play’s humor in human behavior, making it less about plot than the psychological quirks of the people onstage. But there is a story, one that gently unfolds over two days: Homer, who has been engaged seven years after dating his wife-to-be five years previously, brings his fiancé, Myrtle Brown (Krista Eyler), to meet the family for the very first time; Carl has promised a nearby house that he owns to the prospective newlyweds, even though Cora has a plan to to rent that house so that she and Theodore can finally make a life of their own without the constant presence of sister Aaronetta. Meanwhile, the eccentric David has declared that he and Esther should live on separate floors of their two-story house.
Along the way suspicions are voiced about the true nature of the relationship between Theodore and Aaronetta, while Homer at one point breaks off his engagement with Myrtle only to revive it the next day. At one point the strangely melancholic Carl and the feverishly philosophic David decide to become roommates. Eventually all these plot threads are tied up rather neatly.
Director Dennis D. Hennessy of the New Theatre is, if nothing else, a master of comic timing. And most of these performers have worked with him before. As written, this is a leisurely paced play but Hennessy and his actors allow no slack. There are no wasted breaths or extraneous pauses. And the acting is on-the-money.
Personal favorites: Robbins as the half-crazed David, Moores (who finds a way to bring something like a tragic arc to Aaronetta) and the talented Hutchings, who I had not seen onstage for several years. Eyler maintains a delicate balance as Myrtle, Homer’s intended, as she considers the eccentric family she is soon to be part of. Raider-Wexler, who can chew scenery with the best of them, is in a relatively reserved mode in this show — and that’s a good thing, as he builds a memorable portrait of a character who often dwells within his own impenetrable aura. Similarly, Bluford — she of the expansive persona and booming laugh — delivers an admirably realistic performance.
Butell scores with a hilarious deadpan turn as the painfully awkward Homer, Friesen delivers her customary thoughtful, subtle elegance and Johnson, as Theodore (“Thor”), gives us a relaxed but subtle performance that in a way is the glue that holds the show together.
Costume designer Sarah Oliver offers some convincing clothes specific to the era and veteran lighting designer Shane Rowse, as he normally does, makes an important contribution. Gary Mosby, who designed the set, meets a significant challenge by creating a pair of two-story houses on the relatively cramped playing area at Union Station’s City Stage. Composer Jon Robertson provides subtle guitar music, sometimes employed as a single chord to signify a shift in tone or focus.
“Morning’s at Seven” runs through June 9 at City Stage at Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or go to www.kcactors.org.