Altarena Playhouse, Alameda’s venerable community theater, is celebrating its 70th anniversary—and 50 years at its present location on High Street—with a venerable old comedy of just about the same vintage as the troupe, Paul Osbourn’s Morning’s at Seven (1939).
The production offers something more than nostalgia. With the direction of Sue Trigg, whose Death of a Salesman at Altarena was one of the best shows in the Bay Area last year, Morning’s at Seven gives audiences a chance to see a finely tuned ensemble show and to witness a compelling interpretation of a prewar family stage comedy. The play shows what’s become unfamiliar to many of us and what is, after all, strangely familiar—the way Americans looked at themselves right before the start of an ongoing period of change that hasn’t abated.
The two porches and doorways into backyards that take up much of the set mark the comings and goings (and the interplay) of the two families, the Swansons and the Boltons, around whom the story is built. They’re related: Cora Swanson (Maureen Coyne) and her live-in spinster sister, Aaronetta (Arry) Glass (Sarilee Janger), are two of four sisters, one right next door (Sue Williams as Ida Bolton) and the other up the road a piece (Peggy DeCoursey as Esther “Esty” Crampton), married to a seemingly snobbish academic (David Crampton, played by Chris Chapman), who’s forbidden her to associate with “those morons” down the road.
Those morons are an eccentric bunch, even if their extravagances are just stretched-out normal peccadilloes. Homer Bolton (Richard Robert Bunker), pushing 40 and still living at home, brings his fiancee of some years, Myrtle Brown (Shauna Shoptaw) to meet the folks—and Homer’s father, Carl (Tom Leone), picks the day to have a spell.
Carl’s long felt he’s a failure, not knowing who he is. Meanwhile, everybody’s speculating on what the relations might be between Homer and Myrtle during their long wooing, and if there’s a triangle among the in-laws in the arrangement that’s dragged on for a half-century; Arry insists on her place in the home, and Theodore (Thor,” played by T. Louis Weltz) agrees but doesn’t want to talk about it.
As in classic comedies, there are many funny reversals. Underneath the stolid or squirrely exteriors of the tightly knit neighbors lurk opposite tendencies, which prove very amusing when seen in the light of day. The interplay among characters and dilemmas prove dense, and more accrues as this well-written plot unfolds, tying the audiences up in knots—of laughter.
It’s great to see a present-day crowd fall under the spell of something that by current standards of urban self-image seems light years away from our present state of affairs. But one thing Altarena’s production demonstrates is the enduring nature of Americans’ ability to laugh at our own foibles when they’re presented in an appropriate light.
An older kind of play, well-wrought, Morning’s at Seven holds hidden delights and entertainment, thanks to the sensitivity of Sue Trigg’s direction and the wonderful ensemble’s ongoing discovery of their characters’ true interrelationship.
Every time the play seems to be slipping into the maudlin or the sentimental, which characterized much popular culture then—and now—there’s a happy surprise reversal, right up to the classically comic happy end. The cast is composed of regulars in the little theater (and even dance) scene of the East Bay; here, together, they show what they can really do. It’s a great evening, a great celebration of seven decades of Altarena Playhouse and of a perennially pleasing American comedy.
MORNING’S AT SEVEN
Alterena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda. 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Sun. 2 p.m.
through Nov. 11. $17-$20. 523-1553.