In Morning Sun, a world premiere presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, British playwright Simon Stephens precisely captures 60 years of history, local custom, and mother-daughter dynamics via three generations of ordinary women just trying to get through in an ever-changing Manhattan.
Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Sea Wall) has a gift for dialogue, and gets his New York details right, from the Weather Underground bombing on West 11th Street and city-walker Jane Jacobs v. car-culture avatar Robert Moses, to the High-Line and even Van Leeuwen ice cream.
It’s his understanding of women, however, and the complexities of maternal relationships over time that give the play its heft, and imbue meaning to that surfeit of otherwise random references.
Blair Brown (Copenhagen), Edie Falco (The Sopranos), and Marin Ireland (Reasons to be Pretty), superb as mother, daughter, and granddaughter, perfectly embody a range of familial connection and conflict, from love and protection to resentment and misunderstanding.
Deftly directed by Lila Neugebauer (The Waverly Gallery, Mary Page Marlow) at New York City Center Stage 1, the play owes more, in structure and theme, to Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women and Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles than to Stephens’s earlier work.
The play’s 100 intermissionless minutes unfold in a charmless, anonymous space that resembles a church basement or the green room of a regional theater, yet the combined force of its three formidable actors transcends the austerity of the setting.
Charley McBride (Falco) a woman in her fifties, wrestles with her mother Claudette (Brown) and daughter Tessa (Ireland) about their life choices, missed opportunities, unfulfilled potential, and the extent to which those decisions have given them meaning and purpose.
Though Claudette and Tessa have had struggles of their own, Morning Sun is primarily Charley’s story, and what she wants most in life is to connect, feel safe, and be heard. She saw Penn Station razed, a generation of gay men lost to AIDS, and the city she loved brutally attacked on 9/11. When she’s dying, all she wants is to return to New York, have a bagel from Murray’s, and for “somebody, for once, to tell me what a fucking good receptionist I am and how that matters.”
As a young woman, Charley finds purpose singing Joni Mitchell’s ballad “Song to a Seagull,” about a working bird flying over the city and ocean looking for a place to call home. The song is a meditation on whether urban life is the right choice. It haunts her, as does her later viewing of Edward Hopper’s painting of urban isolation, Morning Sun.
The non-linear structure demands close attention, and can be hard to follow at times, as Brown and Ireland also voice several secondary characters (friends, boyfriends, husbands, etc.). Though who’s who may not always be obvious, the effect is clear enough. Stephens’s decision to limit the stage population to the three women creates a powerful theatrical dynamic that enables him to filter the unseen male characters’ perspectives through them.
Charley’s mother, Claudette, came to New York in 1947, when, in a single day, a young woman could get a shopgirl job at Macy’s and a $75 per month two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment in the West Village. Charley grows up in that apartment, and, with Tessa in tow, returns to it, and her mother, after a failed 10-year relationship.
In 2007, when Charley considers leaving the city, she tells the now-struggling adult Tessa, “I can transfer the apartment into your name. I think it would really help you.” Tessa’s response, “A two-bedroom apartment on 11th Street. Yes, I think it would too,” draws a knowing laugh from the local New York audience, but it’s a sad reminder that the city is no longer a livable place for people like the McBrides.
By the time Charley finds lasting love with a man called Eddy, who savors the outdoors and introduces her to the mountains of Colorado, she seems to have found the connection she’s craved and the clarity she’s lacked about whether to stay in New York. Her mother now gone and her daughter safely ensconced in the family home, her seagull may have finally landed.