Stunning performances from Edie Falco, Blair Brown and Marin Ireland humanize Simon Stephens’ new play “Morning Sun,” an earnest if bland love letter to a kind, selfless but fundamentally unremarkable woman.
Falco has some emotionally searing moments that left me weak in the knees with admiration for both the writing and the performance. It’s a pity, maybe even a tragedy, that neither the playwright nor his director, Lila Neugebauer, could sustain that emotional level throughout this drama about a woman so unexceptional that she doesn’t even rate a name in the cast credits.
For the record, her name is Charlotte McBride (known as Charley), and she’s one of those unsung saints who give us renewed hope about the human race. That’s her voice in the opening scene, which is essentially an extended cry of pain. “Am I safe?” she wants to know. And who has the heart to tell someone who appears to be on her deathbed that no one is ever safe in this life?
Brown and Ireland, playing parts identified by the numbers 2 and 3, join Falco to tell the story of Charlotte’s life and approaching death, providing factual background and assuming the roles of other characters as they crop up.
Keeping both feet firmly on the ground and refusing to sentimentalize an essentially unlikeable character, Brown triumphs as Charley’s flinty mother. Crouched in a corner like a famished spider, she positively feasts on lines like “Kites don’t work in New York” and, even worse, “You can’t have a dog in the city.”
Ireland delivers another hunk of the narrative, while bringing a bit of warmth to Charley’s daughter and other less consequential characters. She has perhaps her best moment reminding Charley of the time she went to Brighton Beach and burst into “Song to a Seagull.” But after bringing up that lovely time, the narrator feels compelled to tell Charley that she would never again feel so free and so full of purpose — so alive. To her credit, Ireland softens her voice a bit, just enough to take the sting out of the line.
It’s Falco, though, who commands the stage and finds the humanity in Charley, whose life story is so remarkably unremarkable. Growing up in an apartment in the West Village, she eventually graduates, finds a job, meets men, marries one, and goes on to live an uneventful life — except for one fact that barely gets any mention. This quintessential New York figure was a receptionist at St. Vincent’s Hospital when it was the hospital of last resort for many young men dying of the yet-unnamed disease that would come to be known as AIDS.
More sustained attention to that chapter in Charley’s biography might have brought more substance, more heart and possibly even a sizzle of drama to this inert play. But those coulda-been scenes remain unwritten because Stephens appears to be fixated on describing — never dramatizing — every last detail in the life of his Eleanor Rigby-like heroine, no matter how inconsequential. The writer is actually quite adept at coaxing out the hidden drama in commonplace lives, having done exactly that in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” whose subtlety was not entirely lost when it transferred to Broadway after its London premiere.
Apropos of other unrealized possibilities for this play, director Neugebauer and her design team don’t exactly knock themselves out with the show’s production elements. Instead of keeping a tight focus on the intimate nature of this chamber piece, the scenic designers (a New York-based collective called dots) seem bent on keeping the three actors as far apart as possible. The sparse, unglamorous furnishings get little use but instead seem to serve as reminders to the players to keep their distance, while the murky lighting design (by Lap Chi Chu) doesn’t deliver much of what we tend to think of as light until an artificially bright glow suddenly bursts over a kitchen nook — itself an unnecessary set piece since no one actually cooks anything.
But to be fair, most of the good stuff in the show comes out of the dark in voices that ring true, if not always interesting – and never thrilling. Charley is a nice person, and Falco does her proud. But with all due respect to Willy Loman, not every unsung hero deserves a song.
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