By Donna Herman
Simon Stephens is an extraordinary playwright, but I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know. If you follow theater at all you’ve at least heard of his Tony Award-winning “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” His latest offering, “Morning Sun,” commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club, accomplishes two things I’ve never experienced in a play before. And the combination left me breathless.
“Morning Sun” is a play about a single woman’s life from birth to death – Charley McBride (Edie Falco). The other two actors in the play principally portray her mother Claudette McBride (Blair Brown) and her daughter Tessa McBride (Marin Ireland), although they both also morph into and out of other characters such as Charley’s father, friend, lovers, etc. And although the arc of the play is the birth through death of Charley, it truly revolves around the relationship between the three generations of women. Relationships that rang so true, and were so nuanced, I was unsettled to find how much I saw my own family dynamics being played out on stage.
Now, it’s not like I have never related to characters on stage before. However, I cannot recall a play before “Morning Sun” written by a man with only female characters that are so accurately, complexly, and lovingly drawn. My understanding is that Stephens wrote the play with Falco in mind for the role. He spent time with her before and during writing the play, talking about her life, and had her put her hand on a map of Manhattan and drew around her hand print. And that’s where he set it – Greenwich Village.
Which brings me to the second thing that left me gasping. I grew up in Greenwich Village and lived there all my life. Simon Stephens is British and has lived in Britain all his life. He got every single detail about Greenwich Village correctly. About bars that are no longer there, the cost of things 60 years ago, the role of St. Vincent’s Hospital in the AIDS crisis, how dangerous the crossing at 11th Street and 7th Avenue used to be. It felt as if he had been there because I had, and he told it exactly like it was. Stephens has said that he takes into consideration for whom he’s writing. Well, I’m here to tell you that this reviewer, and the audience I saw it with, responded to every single NYC reference with recognition and laughter.
A critical piece of Stephens’ brilliance is his modesty and the reliance he has on the creativity of the rest of the team – actors, directors, and designers. The script for “Morning Sun” has no stage directions, and describes the characters as “1-a woman in her 50’s; 2-a woman in her 70’s; 4-a woman in her 30’s.” And the lines of the script are identified with only the number of the performer. Leaving the actors and director to figure out what character is speaking and when. Very few playwrights are willing to relinquish control like that.
Of course, very few playwrights are graced with the caliber of cast and director that this production of “Morning Sun” that Manhattan Theatre Club has put together. This is an Edie Falco you haven’t seen before. Girlish and glowing, brave, and strong, determined not to be beaten down by the worst life can throw at her. And both Blair Brown and Marin Ireland navigate their instantaneous transformations from their primary character into ancillary ones both male and female with surety, definition, and no confusion. And no ick factor either when playing male roles. The brilliant director Lila Neugebauer has created an atmosphere, and obviously understands Stephens’ shifting tenses so well, that has made it easy for the performers to navigate this sketchy landscape and reveal it to us with grace and love.
“Morning Sun” By Simon Stephens, Directed By Lila Neugebauer
WITH: Edie Falco (1); Blair Brown (2); Marin Ireland (3)
Scenic Design by dots; Costume Design by Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu; Original Music by Daniel Kluger; Hair & Wig Design by Tom Watson; Production Stage Manager, Laura Smith; Stage Manager, Monet Thibou; Press Rep, Boneau/Bryan-Brown; Artistic Advisor, Ruben Santiago-Hudson; General Manager, Lindsey Sag. Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, Artistic Director, Lynne Meadow; Executive Producer, Barry Grove. New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, NYC 10019. Extended through December 19th, 2021. Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission. Proof of vaccination, Identification, and masks required for entry. For tickets: Call 212-581-1212 or visit the Box Office at 131 West 55th Street Mon-Sat Noon-8pm, Sun Noon-7:30pm or visit https://www.nycitycenter.org/pdps/2021-2022/morning-sun/.