Morning Sun, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is something of a distaff cousin to The Lehman Trilogy. Rather than three men, we have three women, playing different parts, sometimes in conversation, sometimes chatting to us, and sometimes narrating. The talk is also historical in nature, but personal, occasionally cosmic, and not of world-shaking import. It’s half the running time of its Broadway relation, in one act, and teems with the stuff of life. A small miracle, in other words.
This new play by Simon Stephens, of Heisenberg and the Tony-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, begins in darkness, with frantic, urgent, unexplained action returned to at the climax. The lights come up on a homely, homey set that we come to learn is a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment on West 11th Street in Manhattan. We meet the characters, listed in the Playbill and in the script as 1 (Edie Falco), 2 (Blair Brown), and 3 (Marin Ireland). I must admit I gripped my chair in nervous anticipation, as I wasn’t in the mood for an abstract puzzle piece like the film Last Year at Marienbad. I needn’t have worried–these three fantastic performers are playing perfectly ordinary people, whose relationships through the decades are gradually revealed.
Falco plays Charley, who, in her apprehensive fifties, is sandwiched between her flinty seventy-year-old mother Claudette (Brown) and thirty-year-old daughter Tessa (Ireland). A single mom working at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Charley has left an abusive boyfriend and will acquire a new romantic prospect, but mostly worries over Tessa’s future in New York as she contemplates a move to Colorado. The story doesn’t get much more complicated than that. What makes it resonant are Stephens’ brushstrokes, which make the city, with its landmarks, ball games, and Joni Mitchell singing “Song to a Seagull,” a vital fourth character–and the deft performances, as the women slip in and out of different characterizations, with Ireland’s boyfriend berating Falco for a scene, then reverting to mother and daughter. I need not go into the excellence of this trio, except to note that Ireland, something of a fledgling when I saw her in play after play about 15 years ago when I was a Drama Desk nominator, has more than fulfilled that early promise and stands shoulder to shoulder with the two veterans, who are still capable of surprise.
It does take a few sequences to adjust to this storytelling mode, and makes its cumulative effect difficult to describe. (Perhaps the transcendence of the ordinary, the unremarkable, the mundane?) Realizing she has something special director Lila Neugebauer doesn’t push for effect and sentiment, and with the actors in perfect harmony shapes the scenes sensitively in the fairly bare space, created by the design collective dots. Everything is purposeful–when an open closet reveals a vacuum cleaner, we know, like Chekhov’s gun, it will be used. Most of the atmosphere is conjured by light and sound. The play takes its name from what might be called Edward Hopper’s second most famous painting (after “Nighthawks”) and Lap Chi Chu’s subtle gradations of shadow give texture to the passing of the days and years. Lee Kinney’s audio errs I think in creating a “masculine” reverb when the women are portraying men but the blend of sound and music (by sound designer Daniel Kluger) completes the environment. When Charley (a name she prefers over her given Charlotte) recalls “the clean smell of Daddy’s shirts,” somehow you sense them. By the time her scandalized best friend abandons her to her single motherhood, you feel the weight of the betrayal. With all its components neatly in place a show that doesn’t seem to be about much has impact. “Clarity is the key,” says Charley…and Morning Sun is very clear in its telling. You’re not sure what you’ve seen when you leave the theater for the night air, but you know you’ve seen something special.