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/