nytheatre.com review by Garry Schrader
July 6, 2007
Becky Felderman, materfamilias of a large Russian Jewish immigrant family that lives in cramped quarters on Broome Street in 1910, takes issue with the frequent imputations from family and friends that she worries too much. "I'm the world's biggest optimist!" she says, cheerily. 21 years later, having endured more than her share of tragedy, Mrs. Felderman's view is only somewhat tempered. "Life is very hard," she says, "but life is wonderful." Sylvia Regan's Morning Star, the current offering from the Peccadillo Theater Company, whose mission it is to revive "forgotten American classics," is a study in resilience, in how to have the "patience to live through history while making it."
For all of the dire events it chronicles, Morning Star is a genial family melodrama of considerable humor and charm. First produced in 1940, it follows the lives and loves of the Feldermans—widow Becky, her three daughters and one son, along with assorted suitors, boarders, and friends—from 1910, one year before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory conflagration, through World War I, to 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. All of these events, needless to say, make their mark and take their toll.
One of the invaluable benefits of producing revivals is that they allow us to measure other times, other styles and sensibilities, against our own. And Morning Star provides plenty of opportunities for reflection, shocks of recognition about how much, and how little, has changed: Then, socialism was debated heatedly in parlors and over dining room tables. Today, it is "globalization," and the Web is our worldly parlor, but the conditions that give rise to the arguments are much the same. Sweatshops still exist below Canal Street. "The blood of the workers is in every piece of bread!" says the play's socialist Brownstein; for bread, read coffee, or diamonds. Morning Star's description of the events of the Triangle fire will resonate darkly with playgoers' memories of September 11. And then there's this: "It's never war that makes a country great. It's the work of its people during peacetime," says the earnest teacher Harry Engel.
I do not mean to make it sound as if Morning Star is a particularly political play, or a particularly serious one, for all the sufferings its characters endure. Mostly, it is a melodrama, and it struck me as an interesting document, almost a "missing link," its roots in the conventions of the early Yiddish theater but also anticipating the more ambiguous ironies in the plays of the '50s and '60s: in Morning Star's "happy" ending, after all, the family is preserved, but only barely, as the forces of modernism exert their pressure, and the reunion is accomplished only by orchestrated deceptions and self-delusion.
Joseph Spirito has designed a terrific, detailed set for the Peccadillos; Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes are a joy, and at times elicited cries of delight from the audience. Dan Wackerman has directed intelligently and kept the pace quick—possibly too quick at times, as I felt that the production could have benefited from slowing down now and then to give more nuanced weight to some of its moments and to better highlight the ironies that would deepen the play.
Mrs. Felderman says she does not want her daughter Fanny, an actress and singer, to perform at a theatre "where they throw on the actors eggs." Visitors to Bank Street Theater can be assured they need not bring eggs. The play is solidly performed across the board. In the pivotal role of Becky, Susan Greenhill is a quiet dynamo, the center that holds with just a little shrug or a tiny smile. Darcy Yellin and Caroline Tamas are particularly strong and charming as Becky's youngest daughters. Matthew DeCapua as the teacher Harry Engel effortlessly conveys both giddy youthful idealism and adult disillusionment
I'm not sure what any actor and director can do with the play's oddest and most difficult role, that of Becky's eldest daughter, Sadie. Disappointed in love early in the play, Sadie quickly becomes bitter and vindictive—and a capitalist so conscienceless even Brecht might have thought twice about putting her on stage. Clearly, she is meant to be the anti-Becky, someone who lets life's disappointments defeat her, but the play's notable fondness for and indulgence of its other characters' foibles stops at Sadie; it is as though she is in another, lesser, play. Lena Kaminsky does not try to make Sadie particularly likeable; an honorable enough choice, in that it serves the play as written. But I wondered what result more of an effort to humanize her would yield.
Morning Star's fateful encounters with history continued even after its opening in 1940. The day after its premiere, France fell to the Nazis, ticket sales for all Broadway shows plummeted, and the play was forced to close despite good reviews. One can picture Becky Felderman shaking her head, giving a little shrug, and waiting patiently for a revival as fine as this one.