Featured in Hawaii Pacific University's "Morning's at Seven," directed by Joyce Maltby, are, in the back row from left: John Hunt, Sylvia Hormann-Alper, John Mussack and David Schaeffer. Front row from left: Jo Pruden, Becky Maltby, David Starr and Sharon Adair. The play also stars Mary Francis Kabel-Gwin.

Comic cast captures
quirky family


Review by John Berger

Sharon Adair gets the last laugh twice in Hawaii Pacific University's community theater production of "Morning's At Seven," playwright Paul Osborn's gentle look at a quirky American family. Osborn was writing of the present when the play opened for the first time in 1939, but the show has fared much better as a nostalgic comedy in two relatively recent revivals. Director Joyce Maltby taps into that nostalgic perspective here.

"Morning's At Seven"

Presented by Hawaii Pacific University

Where: Hawaii Pacific University, 45-045 Kamehameha Hwy.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 4 p.m. Sundays through May 10; final show at 6 p.m. May 11.
Tickets: $14 ($10 seniors, military, students).
Reservations: 375-1282

The title is taken from a Robert Browning poem, and grammar mavens justifiably irked by the local custom of inserting an apostrophe into words ending in "s" can cool their jet's, er, jets. It's how the man wrote it.

As for Adair, she has the final comic bit in the show -- and, on top of that, adds a final comic twist to the curtain call as well. It's a nice one, considering that Adair, who plays a woman named Ida Bolton, has what seems to be a secondary role for much of the story.

Ida is one of the last characters that playwright Osborn introduces to the audience. She and her husband, Carl, have lived in the same house for 50 years, and have shared it with their bachelor son, Homer, for 40. From the perspective of the audience, they live in "the house on the right," and it's over at the "the house on the left" that the story opens and the sharpest drama occurs.

That's where Ida's sister, Cora lives. She and her husband, Theodore "Thor" Swanson, have been living there for 50 years. Cora and Thor have shared their home with a third sister, Aaronetta "Arry" Gibbs, the only spinster in the family, for half a century as well.

The eldest sister, Esther "Esty" Crampton, lives a few blocks away with her dictatorial husband, David, a retired university professor who dismisses all of his in-laws (except Carl) as "morons."

There's some discontent simmering beneath the surface of the four sisters' lives, but it's the arrival of Homer that disrupts their seemingly tranquil existence. Homer apparently has been "keeping company" with the same woman, one Myrtle Brown, for a dozen years and has finally decided to bring her home to meet the folks.

Homer isn't quite sure he's given the matter enough thought, but he thinks he may be ready to marry Myrtle and move from his parents' home into the house his father built for him five years ago -- it's been sitting empty since Carl built it.

Cora has had her eye on the house for other reasons.

Carl may have another construction job to handle, as dictatorial David has told Esty that if she persists in sneaking out to visit her "moron" sisters and Thor, he's going to have their home divided into two units and have no contact with her at all.

IN SHORT, there's a lot going on, and the story has the type of well-written characters that actors look forward to interpreting.

But, curiously, no HPU theater students appear in this show (there are no "spear-carrier" roles, so to speak, to fill). Where the UH-Manoa theater program would have presented it with students giving it their best shot, director Maltby -- who also is HPU's Director of Theatre -- has assembled a cast consisting of some of Hawaii's top community theater performers. Most are veterans of many previous HPU shows and a couple of them play against type here.

One of the more impressive is Jo Pruden as Cora. There was a time, several years ago, when it seemed that she forever would be portraying snippy, sharp-tongued characters. Well, not here -- Pruden deftly handles the demands of a far broader range of emotions and characterization. Playwright Osborn may not have written the role of Cora as his designated heroine in an ensemble comedy that Maltby brings close to being farcical, but the subtleties of Pruden's performance makes Cora the one character most likely to win the audience's sympathy.

Mary Francis Kabel-Gwin as Esty, likewise, does great work in another of the deeper roles. We may not see the cause of Esty's sudden rebellion (there is no obvious epiphany for her) but Kabel-Gwin does a convincing job in her role.

David Schaeffer (Thor) and Sylvia Hormann-Alper (Arry) have the two other major roles as suspect housemates. There are hints very early on that there's something going on between them. Schaeffer smoothly pulls together a portrait of a man for whom life has become a matter of inertia. An early scene in which Arry sneaks pieces of her sister's snack proves to be a key to the threesome's relationship, as well as Cora's feelings for her sister.

John Mussack (Carl) affects a very strange accent, and delivers most of his lines in a somnambulant way that suggests that good-natured if frustrated Carl lacked the smarts to make it through dental school. None of this detracts from Mussack's performance.

John Hunt is excellent as the overbearing ex-professor who can't understand why the "morons" of the world don't appreciate his brilliance and whose dreams of splendid isolation are thwarted by the costs involved in installing a second bathroom.

David Starr and Becky Maltby (the director's daughter) complete the cast as the 40-ish would-be love birds. Starr succeeds in playing Homer as being almost as off-center a guy as Carl (like father, like son) and brings a welcome depth to his portrayal of the bachelor son who isn't sure he's really ready to leave home. Homer wins the audience over as he thrashes through his conflicting emotions.

Maltby does a fine job playing Myrtle as a simple-minded, yammering ditz. Perhaps the lack of any evident romantic chemistry between Homer and Myrtle was intended by the director to be a contrast to the more richly shaded interaction that occurs between Thor, Cora and Arry.

Director Maltby's productions rarely fall short in the tech department, and "Morning's" maintains that tradition. Karen Archibald's beautifully detailed set is particularly impressive. Two other community theater professionals, costume designer Roxanne Vogelgesang and lighting designer Cathie Anderson, share credit for making this a good-looking show. Jason Taglianetti's sound design contributions adds to the play's late-1930s ambiance.

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