It’s easy to compare Simon Stephens’ new play Morning Sun with Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Both plays take a panoramic view of one woman’s life, told through three women at different ages. Albee’s play splinters the same older woman into three versions of herself, while Stephens’ play focuses on the middle-aged woman in the center and extrapolates out, also showing her mother and daughter. The three actors then play every other character that figures into the narrative, while Albee keeps it contained to the three characters in the room. Albee’s play is based in conversation, while Stephens takes a more declarative approach, having the characters describe life events to each other like they are narrating a second-person novel. In MTC’s premiere production of Morning Sun, Lila Neugebauer’s gentle and well-paced staging keeps this narration from taxing patience, but the play does not ignite much of a spark.
Stephens’ play tracks Charley McBride (Edie Falco) from pre-conception to death. Her mother, Claudette (Blair Brown), moves to New York, falls in love, and gives birth to Charley. They live in a walk-up apartment in the West Village that becomes a contentious point between Charley and a boyfriend later in the play. Charley eventually gives birth to Tessa (Marin Ireland) and Tessa grows up, and devotes her life to a career she feels neutral about, at best. The play drops pins all over New York as these three women navigate their lives, sometimes actually naming the street address where things take place.
The play is insistent that there is nothing particularly extraordinary about these three women. They’re all just trying to make it through, holding down menial jobs, dating men who are sometimes great, sometimes awful, and finding a modicum of contentment. Entire lives transpire in the play, but it can also be said that nothing actually happens. There are moments of tension (Claudette castigates Charley for poor parenting and tells her granddaughter she won’t amount to much), but they register as slight blips. The play is unconcerned with the kind of bombastic events in other family-centered works. But Stephens uses the ordinariness to look at mental health and coping mechanisms: Claudette is a suppressor, Charley self-medicates with alcohol, Tessa confronts it. Depression runs rampant under the surface of this play, but until the third generation, they do not have the means to address it. Even when Tessa eventually tells her mother that she’s unhappy, Charley does not have the language to help her. If the way we deal with our own mental well-being is the point of the play, I wish it had been slightly more focused in that direction.
The play takes its title from an Edward Hopper painting and the physical production follows suit with the kind of austere spareness found in Hopper’s work. Stephens calls for “A liminal space. / Defined more by light and sound than by objects.” The scenic design collective dots has fashioned a space that feels like a church basement, with carpeted floors, a low ceiling, and small windows high up that let in a tiny amount of light. I still find myself considering what the space represented, even more than a day later. I’m not sure I have an answer. Lighting designer Lap Chi Chu plays with shadow and color. Overhead lighting is subtly augmented and slivers of “natural” light come peeking through the windows, transforming the gray/beige space several times over. Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger’s sound design allows some of New York City to penetrate the bunker-like walls, filtered not only by concrete, but also by memory.
The trio of actresses are all extraordinary in their parts. Brown and Ireland are two of the greatest stage actresses working, and although Falco is better known for her television work, she has an uncanny stage presence and her performance is lived-in and incredibly natural. Falco has a monologue towards the end of the play that is bone-chilling and one of few moments where the play achieves something dramatically exciting. These three women, Neugebauer, and Stephens know how to tell a story and this one is a bold experiment with form. As well-made as it is, though, its focus on the ordinary holds it back. But maybe that’s the point. Not everybody’s life is thrilling.