Older actors take center stage in Civic Theatre’s "Mornings at Seven"


Civic Theatre’s Mornings at Seven

Barbara Mackey King and Melissa Stewart read from scripts during rehearsals for Civic Theatre’s Mornings at Seven.

Youth will be served.

In popular music, movies, and theater, young adults are usually the center of attention. Older actors will land roles as wise elders, cantankerous villains, or doddering comic relief. But the roles are sometimes few and far between.

That’s one reason why Thom Johnson wanted to stage Paul Osborn’s gentle, Midwest 1939 comedy Mornings at Seven for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

“I did this play 10 years ago with another group and in the intervening years, looking at shows I wanted to be in, I noticed a real lack of parts for older people,” Johnson said, “and this show except for the two ‘youngsters’ who are in their 40s, it’s all about older people. I think that’s what really sparked me into wanting to do it, an opportunity for older actors to get out there on stage and do their thing.”

Mornings at Seven centers around four sisters in their 60s and their families in a small Midwestern town in 1938. Though less well known now, Osborn was a successful playwright and screenwriter who often drew on his early experiences growing up in Indiana and spending time western Michigan. Mornings at Seven is one of the University of Michigan graduate's most performed plays.

“I like it because it’s a very gentle comedy. The crises that they are facing are not life and death but they really affect them as human beings and how they’ve lived their lives so far,” Johnson said. “There’s real wit and poignancy in how they look at their lives and see if they want to change or they don’t want to change.”

Johnson said Kalamazoo may have been the inspiration for Osborn’s setting.

“Kalamazoo, back in the '30s was more of a farm town, so not sophisticated people but not country bumpkins, but regular, solid, middle-class kind of folks and what they cared about in their lives now that their working days were over,” Johnson said.

Cora and her husband, Thor, live with Cora’s younger sister Aaronetta and next store to their sister Ida and her husband Carl. Ida and Carl’s 40-year-old son Homer lives with his parents. A couple blocks away, the oldest sister, Esther, lives were her academic husband, David, who has a low opinion of his wife’s family.

The story revolves around Homer’s decision to finally ask his longtime girlfriend Myrtle to marry him and to introduce her to his family. He has been meeting her in the city for 12 years and never brought her home. That decision sets off a conflict over a house.

“Homer’s shy,” Johnson said. “It’s funny that he has two lives. Myrtle says you’re so different here, and even Homer feels that. He doesn’t want to leave home but he feels stifled here.”

But the story of Homer and Myrtle is secondary to the drama of the older family members.

Johnson and his older cast members not only bring the wisdom of their years to the production, but many of them have had experience performing the play.

“I sometimes feel like a co-director because so they have so many ideas about their character, why don’t we do this or why don’t we do that and I wish I had thought of it as the director, “ Johnson said. “Charlie, the guy playing Carl, actually directed this show 23 years ago. I was in it.”

Civic Theatre’s Mornings at Seven

The veteran cast of Civic Theatre’s Mornings at Seven gathered after a rehearsal.

Charles Sutherland directed the play for AA Civic Theatre in 1993 and takes on the role of Homer’s troubled father in the current production of what he calls “a wonderful play.”

“I play Carl, the father of the groom to be and he’s really keyed up about meeting his future daughter-in-law for the first time,” Sutherland said. “He’s accustomed to asking questions about how he got to the place he’s in and wishing he was somewhere else because he took the wrong turn. He wants to go back and take a turn the other way. It’s a thing that older people are thinking, how did I get here. He’s very real, but the hard part is making him funny because he’s having very real anxiety attacks.”

Carl has the most intense sense of being lost in an unfulfilled life. He talks of an opportunity to be a dentist but instead became a successful builder.

“How come he doesn’t credit that as a noble profession? He thinks he isn’t anything,” Sutherland said.

Laurie Atwood played the younger Myrtle in the 1993 Civic production and now takes on the role of the oldest sister.

“I play Estie, the oldest sister and the prettiest, the smartest and one with the hottest husband,” she joked.

Atwood learned from her earlier experience on the play.

“When I played Myrtle, the smallest part in the show, I got to sit and watch a lot of the performance and I admired Phyllis Wright, a wonderful actress,” Atwood said. “I was asked what part I wanted to play and I said I didn’t care but then I got the role of Esther, the role Phyllis Wright played years ago and I wanted it. It’s special doing it now and remembering so fondly all those years ago that she played the role and was terrific.”

Atwood said Esther understands “the family dynamics” the best of anyone and is the person that others call on for help.

Atwood said Mornings at Seven is a play to which modern audiences can still relate.

“It’s charming and reminds your what really happens in the families and how people interact and that the issues they had in the 1930s are the same that people have today,” Atwood said.

Johnson, Sutherland, and Atwood are examples of the many veteran theater actors, directors, designers, and crew workers who have entertained Ann Arbor residents for years and found their special niche in the local theater scene.

Sutherland worked for years at the Performance Network and like Johnson has worked as both actor and director.

Atwood acted in her first play when she was 14 and got the theater bug when her parents took her to a performance of Sound of Music at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. She was offered a chance to do graduate work at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts but decided instead to stay home and pursue a career while continuing to perform on local stages. She said she has been able to perform many great roles on local stages.

The experienced cast also includes Ellen Finch, Lenore Farber, Barbara Mackey King, Melissa Stewart, Theo Polly, Larry Rusinsky, and Jay Fischer.

Johnson said he wants to emphasize the play's comedy and the play’s nostalgic portrait of another place and time, but one in which audiences should be able to see their own lives in the lives of these characters.

“I want them to feel comfortable that everything is resolved, that all the conflicts are resolved and they’re glad it’s a happy ending,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an intellectual kind of enlightenment that you’re going to get from this. I don’t think it’s world saving, problem solving, anything that comes from there. It should be pleasant.”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre will be present Paul Osborn’s "Mornings at Seven" at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan at 7:30 pm, Thursday, April 20, at 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, April 21-22, and at 2 pm on Sunday, April 23. For tickets, go online at A2CT.org or phone 734-971-2228.