In a sense, the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild production of “Morning’s at Seven” has been about 40 years in the making.
At least that’s how long director Robert Carr has wanted to stage the comedy, and he’s finally getting his chance with a show that premieres Thursday at the Grand Theatre.
Carr, a co-founder of the Theatre Guild, attended the Tony Award-winning revival of the play in New York in 1980 and has wanted to see it on the guild schedule since the group began performing in 1982.
“We were just absolutely captivated by it, just a very gentle, fluid show,” he said of the Broadway production.
Set in 1922, Paul Osborn’s play focuses on four sisters living close by each other in a small town. Sibling rivalries are stirred up when one sister’s son decides to leave home and get married, and another tells her husband she wants to live apart from the sister who shares a house with them.
The family bond between these people, notwithstanding bickering and resentments, makes the show work, Carr said. “It’s very funny,” he added. “It’s not a guffaw comedy; it’s a gentle, gentle comedy.”
The nine cast members, who gathered with Carr before a recent rehearsal, all spoke about how strongly the family connections register.
“I think it’s all about family,” said Bob Sessions, who plays David Crampton.
The audience should find the characters’ interactions engaging, said Lance Harris, who plays Homer Bolton, the son with marriage on his mind.
“I think people are really going to enjoy the camaraderie of the family aspect with all the sisters and how everybody relates to one another,” he said. “There’s really a lot of chemistry onstage here.”
In real time
Although the year is specified, the play doesn’t rely on the time period for its resonance, which may be one reason why the play was received more warmly in productions such as the 1980 and 2002 Broadway runs than when it premiered in 1939.
“What I love about the show is the sweetness and the way it is timeless,” said Linda Baxa, in the role of Esther Crampton, wife of Sessions’ character.
Rozie Bejin, who plays the unmarried sister, Arry Gibbs, elaborated on that timelessness.
“There’s really no reference to anything political that’s going on at the time,” she said. “You don’t get any reference to what’s happening in history so it really is what’s happening in that little town in that neighborhood with those sisters.”
While it’s timeless in its themes, “Morning’s at Seven” reflects past elements that some may miss today.
“It’s a nice, quaint play — some old-fashioned values,” said Mark McHorney, who is making his Theatre Guild debut as Thor Swanson.
Ron Bower, as Carl Bolton, said he appreciates a quality that stands out in the male characters.
“It shows men were vulnerable back then,” he said. “My character has a little bit of anxiety … It would be a midlife crisis if he wasn’t 68.”
Carl Bolton’s situation reflects another way in which things in the play are different from 2020.
I think what it shows is that in 1922 we didn’t talk about psychology or human behavior,” Bejin said. “So what (Carl) is going through people nowadays could go to a therapist and help deal with it. But back then they called it ‘having a spell.’”
The family bond stays strong despite various differences.
“Even when they fight, they bicker, they have strong history together,” said Barbara Goings, portraying Cora Swanson. “They don’t always get along but they really are their own support structure.”
The real deal
The story of this fictional family shines a spotlight on how real families work, the actors agreed.
Susie Draeger plays the role of Myrtle Brown, Homer’s fiancée. Although Draeger hails from the Chippewa Valley, her life took her elsewhere until she returned 10 years ago. Once she moved back to town, her father began stopping by her house daily at 10 a.m.
“And we lost our dog in December, and he kept coming,” she said, showing a trace of emotion. “I called him the day after my dog passed, and I said, ‘Dad, are you going to come at 10?’ And he said, ‘I’m not going to stop coming!’ And now we have a new dog, and it’s a rejuvenation.’”
That consistency also rings true to Sessions.
“I think there’s always a closeness to the family,” Sessions said. “Even though sometimes they have separate things, they go their own way for a while. I think people are drawn back to that closeness that they have.”
The closeness doesn’t preclude difficulties, though, Goings said.
“I think the other thing about the play is that we never stop learning how to navigate difficult relationships or prior hurts or future goals or differences of opinion,” she said.
It may be a family, but that family comprises individuals, which is where things may get complicated, suggested Debbie Brown, in the role of Ida Bolton, Carl’s wife and Homer’s mother.
“One of the recurring themes with a bunch of individuals is: What is my purpose in life, where am I going?” she said, “and that also shows that even though you’re in a relationship for 15 years you still have that insecurity and also that desire for something more than what you have. And so you are a part of the family, but you’re an individual with your own needs and passions.”
Forming a bond
With the show’s reliance on a cohesive ensemble, Carr found an interesting way to build rapport: have the actors go out to dinner in character.
“We started to discover things about our characters that aren’t even in the script,” Draeger said. “People say hi to you, mutual conversations, husbands getting up and leaving the table, wives getting up and leaving the table. It made it really kind of come alive for us at that event.”
McHorney, who’s a well-known baseball coach in the city, said the group has been supportive, accepting him “like a rookie.”
“So a rookie comes into the clubhouse, and sometimes people will turn off or sometimes people will adopt,” he said. “And I think this group, for me at least, has kind of pulled me along with them and has made me feel a part of that.”
Sessions did, however, toss a bit of razzing his way.
“Your locker’s still back in the far corner,” he said, to laughter.
Others in the production emphasized that a welcoming atmosphere has always been part of the Theatre Guild’s game plan.
Baxa complimented the cast and added, “This is how we operate. I’m a former board president, so maybe I am biased in that regard, but I’ve been performing with the guild since 1998, and I never had any other experience than that.”
Sessions seconded that idea.
“I totally agree with Linda because every show that I’ve been in, it was almost like a death in the family when a show got over because you were so connected with the people that you were with for six weeks and then all of a sudden you were done,” he said.
Carr bolstered the idea that esprit de corps has been made a priority.
“When we started the organization, one of our major goals was to welcome and embrace and make people think that, yes, I’m giving up six weeks of my life, but I’m sharing six weeks of my life,” he said, “and I think most of us as directors try our best to help build camaraderie and friendships and security.”
While that mutual support has obvious advantages for the actors as they strive to perform their best, the guild itself reaps the benefits of continued participation. Lance Harris, for instance, said he had never acted in high school or anywhere else but decided to try out for a show, which happened to be one that Carr was directing.
“And immediately feeling that acceptance and being part of that group, it led to a lot more things and I’ve been acting with the guild ever since,” he said.
Draeger shared a similar experience, saying that the previous time Carr directed her in a show was in 1989, when she was a senior in high school. Once moving back to Eau Claire, it was just a matter of time before acting again.
“When my daughter graduated two years ago, I came right back to the guild,” she said.