Morning Sun by Simon Stephens directed by Lila Neugebauer, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club (New York City Center Stage 1) takes its name from the titular Edward Hopper painting. Hopper’s austere work is of a woman on her bed in bright sunlight staring out the window that faces a factory type building in the distance and rooftops below-unpictured from the high-floor perspective of the painted cityscape.
Edward Hopper came from the same hometown, Nyack, as the McBride family women who make reference to him with pride. The painting “Morning Sun” is symbolically appropriate, because Stephens’ protagonist (#1 or Charlotte/Charley) played with terrific focus and authenticity by Eddie Falco, is peering out the window of her life in a flashback life review. She recalls to remembrance her past, assisted by Blair Brown (#2, her mother) and Marin Ireland (#3 her daughter). The woman in the painting steeped in reflection and introspection mirrors Charley McBride.
Brown, Falco and Ireland represent three generations of the lower middle-class McBride women. We see their perspectives and lives as they discuss their relationship with Charley who is the centerpiece of the play. Brown and Ireland also portray the important friends, family and male partners who populated Charley’s life and who are central to the events that took her on her singular journey through the stages of youth, middle age and beyond.
The exposition begins after Charley cries out about safety and security for herself, like a child crying out in the dark. The others assure her she is safe, and calm her down. We understand this beginning to mean that Charley initially is in a place where she fears for her safety. Ironically, it comes to refer to her entire life as a question of unsafe uncertainty. Like every human being who confronts death every moment without accepting or understanding the conundrum of life in death, they move without fully grasping their instinctive purpose is to stay alive until they leave this earthly plane.
Stephens intimates that there is another consciousness, and the characters inhabit some netherworld in it. But he never clarifies the specifics and certainly not with any religious overlay. Thus, Charley’s cries have great moment, only we don’t realize why this is so and to what she refers until the conclusion when Stephens reveals it.
With rapid-fire unveiling, the women stream through the beginning, middle and ending of Charley’s life assessment. Their exposition has break through dynamic moments where the women or men that #2 and #3 portray argue or disagree and resist Charley. The drama of a “life well or ill lived” is bled out of Charley’s existence which might be characterized as one of the invisible millions of “average” and “ordinary” women who lived and died as New Yorkers making do, because they decided not to commit suicide and affirm their identity with an important emotional statement embracing death as a balm for their life’s miseries. They lived, without much reflection or philosophical pondering, a day-to-day existence.
Charley’s chronicle is sandwiched between Claudette’s move to New York City and purchase of an apartment on 11th St. in Greenwich Village where she raises Charley, and years later when Charley comes back to visit and stay with Tessa after she moves to Colorado. The apartment bought on the cheap, in a questionable area grows in value and becomes the envy of all who hear of it, including the audience.
We learn that Claudette arrived in NYC to escape upstate New York and an untenable home-life. By degrees almost as an expanded laundry list, we learn of Claudette’s work, her husband, Charley’s father, Charley’s formative years, her friendship with Casey, her work as a receptionist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, her one-night stand with a pilot and her pregnancy and decision to keep Tessa as a single mother without extensive means. We also learn of Charley’s substantive partners, one abusive, the other kind.
The chronicle is also of New York City’s rise, fall and rise again revealed as Stephens intertwines Charley’s personal events sometimes impacted by the culture through the decades. Ironically, Claudette wants to linger on the 60s, her generation, while Charley affirms the 70s is more important and it’s about “her life” after all. Thus, politics and the upheavals of the 1960s roll off Charley’s back without notice. We consider that Claudette’s viewpoints perhaps were shaped by that time, while Charley, the recipient of the benefits of the 60s social upheavals, remains unconcerned about them.
Throughout, as New York’s financial situation improves, there is discussion about the apartment and what to do with it. We discover that one of Charley’s partners, Brian, who Claudette can’t tolerate because he abused her daughter persists in trying to get Charley to sell the place, even after they split up. Such discussions become points of humor, as every New Yorker at one time or another finds looking for a place to live, finding a place to live and staying once they’ve found it, one of the main preoccupations of being a New Yorker and living in the city.
Stephens’ vehicle of using #2 and #3 to supplement Charley’s perspective with the men and friends in her life offers an unsettling, unemotional scoping of a list of remembrances that speed us to the why and wherefore of Charley’s existence, however tedious it may be for the audience. The exposition in its great swaths of the non-confrontational is wearisome and uneventful. My neighbor in the audience slept through most of the play and at one point, I found myself almost joining him as I struggled to stay “woke.”
Clearly, Stephens is making a thematic point similar to one heralded by Thorton Wilder’s Emily in Act 3 of Our Town. That life, all of it, especially in its sameness and undramatic monotone is wonderful. Even if one’s life is dreary, monochromatic, dull and uneventful, it is up to us, the players, to bring purpose and meaning to it. This, Charley realizes by the end of the play. She understands the great importance of being a receptionist at St. Vincent’s after the hospital is shut down. She tells Tessa the amazing things about her that she loves. Such realizations, Stephens suggests, arrive just on time for their full appreciation. Indeed, Charley understands by the end, that she misses what she took for granted as a privilege. Most importantly, those people, places and wants only resonate with her unique ethos and being.
The strength of Stephen’s work which requires a yeowoman’s job of getting all of the details down is in the overall message and the last few minutes of the play which is an apotheosis for Charley and the audience. Throughout, Falco is a tour de force, in a role beautifully rendered, especially at the conclusion. Blair Brown and Marin Ireland are wonderful assistants, though Ireland needed to project and at times in her inward emotion gathering became a faint wisp, indeed, in character, but not always articulated.
Director Lila Neugebauer properly stages Morning Sun in the ethers, not focusing on the material aspects of the production so that we listen carefully and take in the lives being shared with us. Though Charley’s journey is told in flashback narrative, we do come to trust the reliability of those who speak. This is a testament to the actors and director savoring the playwright’s work.
Kudos to the creative team: dots (scenic design) Kaye Voyce (costume design) Lap Chi Chu (lighting design) Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger (sound design) Daniel (original music) Tom Watson (hair and wig design). For tickets and times go to https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/morning-sun/
Edie Falco and Michael McKean as Rumored Lovers in ‘The True’ by Sharr White, Directed by Scott Elliott
During my undergraduate and graduate college days and afterward (1970s), I lived in Albany, New York, the setting of The True. Familiarizing myself with the city during those years, I learned about Albany’s political and social structure. Friends who were aides to state congressmen used to discuss the corruption problems in Albany’s Democratic machine. Other friends, some of them Black Panthers, discussed the white communities’ racial discrimination and local government injustices. In those years, the Irish controlled Albany city and county. And Dan O’Connell as Party Chairman helped Mayor Erastus Corning II govern the city for decades.
On one level I knew about the background of Sharr White’s subject matter and characters in The True. There were no surprises. He based the characters on research about real personalities. On the other hand, the playwright’s perspective on the characters held many surprises. Indeed, his exploration of how power and the ties that solidify power bathe in loyalty appear fascinating in the backdrop of today’s leaking political climate. As a result, The True, ably directed by Scott Elliott and impeccably acted by Edie Falco, Michael McKean, and the ensemble, ignites with humor and intrigue.
White mostly depicts Albany’s machine politics with a positive twist. Ostensibly, hooked-in communities backed the Democrats for good old-fashioned patronage. Their loyalty was rewarded with various types of assistance and employment. The Democratic Party took care of widows and orphans. They got jobs for those who needed help. In exchange the voters listened to their committeemen. And they formed a solid community. Furthermore, they remained loyal to the party until death. As for those who wanted a political career, they worked their way up the ladder, moved from position to position until they achieved glory. Of course they had to live in Albany for all of their lives. Erastus Corning II was such an individual.
But Republicans struggled. They received higher tax bills and other infelicities. Meanwhile, the outsider black community feared Corning’s police. Though injustices raged, they kept their heads down except for a few attempts at protest (by The Brothers). From my outsiders’ perspective a negative mythology about O’Connell’s machine and Mayor Corning II swirled around the capital of New York State. White’s The True rounded out my perspective and brought additional considerations into view.
Interestingly, no clouds of malfeasance penetrate Sharr White’s world of Albany politics, though characters discuss or deny rumors. Instead, White provides a human portrait of individuals. He particularly focuses on the relationship between Corning II (Michael McKean) and secretary and close friend Peggy Noonan (Edie Falco). Though Albany social circles intimated they had a love relationship, White’s play concentrates on their bonds surrounding politics. The ferocious loyalty Noonan has to Corning II as the do-gooding Mayor of Albany is the centerpiece of the play. Yet, questions about their relationship serve as the conflict. When a wedge develops between Corning II and Noonan, their reactions drive the action and stir the characterizations.
Ingeniously, White gives us the insider’s perspective “in the rooms where loyalties happened.” The play opens after Dan O’Connell’s funeral (1977), at friends Peter and Peggy Noonan’s home where Erastus Corning II frequently hangs for comfort and advice. With humorous interplay, Edie Falco portrays Peggy Noonan’s vibrance, determination, and foul-mouthed, steely brilliance. Her political acumen appears greater than that of her male counterparts. Supported by her affable, agreeable, clever, non-political husband Peter (Peter Scolari), they discuss Corning II’s options.
Because Corning II is not O’Connell’s pronounced heir apparent, he is swimming in dark waters after the party boss’s death. We divine that the entire organization (machine) and reins of power are up for grabs. Indeed, Peggy stirs the pot by reminding “Rasty” that the tough O’Connell operative Charlie Ryan (John Pankow) will kick Corning II, whom he dislikes, to the curb. When McKean’s Corning II appears to wobble, Falco clobbers him with the truth of the loss of power that will occur and why and how it will occur. The changing of the guard (few politicians will care about their constituents) will sink Corning II. The lack of loyalty will give others a wedge to undermine the Democratic party’s strength at nurturing its communities.
Falco’s Noonan cajoles with logic, wit, and sarcasm. She delivers quips with sass and spunk and verve. As we note her determination in stirring McKean’s “Rasty” we note their closeness. For his part McKean’s portrait of Corning II remains measured, thoughtful, avuncular. No stench of corruption, rapacious ambition, or ruthlessness follows this likable mayor. Indeed, the portrayal reveals an emotional, deep individual. We note he stays because he yearns for the companionship of his trusted friends. Rather than go home to his wife Betty as Polly suggests, he receives sustenance from them, especially Polly. For his part, Peter listens and participates, generously pouring drinks and good will.
Yet, we question. Why would another man’s wife curate so vehemently the political career of a friend? Why not his own wife? Noonan as Corning’s former secretary means so much more to him than his wife Betty does. Indeed, she appears to be the finest political advisor a politician could have. On closer inspection we understand that this politician is married to his party and career. By design, Polly comes with the package. Thoughtfully, White lightly suggests that their bond did or may sneak beyond the elusive depths of his political career toward intimacy.
Sharr White develops this intriguing notion throughout. Notably, he presents a complex answer by degrees underneath various personality layers and sharp Noonan retorts to Rasty’s rivals. One obvious theme concerns Noonan’s gender. Undoubtedly, at a different time and place, Peggy Noonan would have stepped from behind the scenes to make a grand committeewoman or state congresswoman herself. However, because of gender limitations, she must settle for being Rasty’s brilliant adviser, counselor, and cattle prod, which she adores being. Also, she must wear the filthy smear of the “other woman,” in infamy. For decades it remains a slander from which she receives no benefit.
White shows us the turning point when McKean’s Corning II must give up his association with Peggy “to stop people from talking.” However, that does not stop Noonan’s persistence. She remains “the true.” Loyal to Corning II, she fights for him against his adversaries. And she properly divines the polls where others fail, even Rasty. Finally with only days to spare, we follow her intrigues as she puts together a deal which saves Rasty’s career and convinces a remorseful McKean’s Rasty he should never have left her association.
What a woman! A political wheeler-dealer bar none! In fact White reveals that Erastus Corning II might have languished in the graveyard of failed politicians without her help and Peter’s friendship. By comparison, Corning II’s own family situation appears worse than bleak, isolated and friendless. No forthcoming career help there.
The True succeeds on many levels: the fascinating characters, the acting, the directing. Though the individuals are factual, White teases out the emotional tenor between and among the Noonans and Corning II. Importantly, the playwright depicts an incredible force in Noonan. And Falco portrays her with that particularity inherent in one who is wise, ferocious, logical, politically savvy, and street smart. Also, she happens to be a woman who cares about people, as she suggests that O’Connell and Corning II and the Democratic Party cared about the “have nots.” For me this refreshing inside revelation about a vital and unlikely conductor politically leading a symphony of men strikes with authenticity.
The production is a must-see for Falco’s dogged portrayal, with adroit assists by McKean, Scolari and the rest of the cast. Austin Caldwell portrays Bill McCormick, Glenn Fitzgerald depicts Howard C. Nolan, and John Pankow portrays Charlie Ryan. Kudos go to the creative team: Derek McLane (scenic design), Clint Ramos (costume design), Jeff Croiter (lighting design), Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (sound design & music composition). The True runs at The Pershing Square Signature Center until 28 October. If you don’t purchase tickets soon, it will be sold out. For tickets Click HERE.