“Am I safe?” she cries out into the darkness, unsettling the air in the room sharply. These words ring out, pleading and pulling us deep down inside the dark well that is Morning Sun, Simon Stephens’ somewhat captivating new creation currently playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage I. Directed with a tender finesse by Lila Neugebauer (Broadway’s The Waverly Gallery), the deconstructed layerings of what makes a fundamentally ordinary life meaningful, an act Stephens (Heisenberg, Sea Wall) is so good at creating, plays out like orderly snippets of a distinct past, echoing a walk to the clinic alongside ghosts. The tale is about no one special, but someone entirely important to those that surrounded her throughout, and most meaningful for those who can say that they saw the sunshine shudder in her presence.
Delivering some of the most spectacularly engaging performances so far this season, Edie Falco (Broadway’s The House of Blue Leaves, New Group’s The True), Blair Brown (Broadway’s Copenhagen, Second Stage’s Mary Page Marlowe), and the always intriguing Marin Ireland (ATC’s Blue Ridge, TG/CSC’s Summer and Smoke) shapeshift their way through the history of a woman and the city she struggled within and against. They find captivating emotional connections to this woman through the complex writing and the interpersonal interactions that existed inside all those characters that these extra-fine actors morph so easily into, one after the other, to our amazement. It’s hypnotizing, watching these magicians find their inner physical and emotional magic with such a force, as we register the unremarkable, yet remarkable life of a woman named Charley (Falco).
The pain we hear in those opening moments is Charlotte McBride’s, but we don’t know it yet. The voice beseeches, crying out into the air, etching the framework of the space with fear and need. “Have you got me?” she wants to know, desperately reaching out from a dark place of fear with pleads for connection and safety. It registers deep and almost childlike, somewhat confusing us as to where this story is beginning and ending. But we soon discover, thanks to Stephens’ tender and easily engaging writing that this play is about this woman and where she is in her life, moment to moment, crisis to crises. With simple ease, we are drawn through the years on a sparse set orchestrated by dots design collective; with straightforward costumes by Kaye Voyce (Broadway’s Sea Wall/A Life); stingy subtle lighting by Lap Chi Chu (Public’s Mlina’s Tale); and an echoing deep sound design by Lee Kinney (Broadway’s Is This A Room) with original music by co-sound designer Daniel Kluger (Broadway’s Oklahoma!). The design doesn’t bring this piece any clarity or connectivity, keeping the characters far from one another, rather than delivering us an intimacy that this piece could have used a bit more of. But the actors work hard keeping us involved, even when the space between the souls is too full of emptiness.
Falco is a quiet straight-forward force to be reconned with though, finding a deep solid connection to the humanistic core of this woman, as she digs up a character that is defined and detailed from within. No surprise here for the actor who has a solid gift of finding gold within the ordinary (check out this scene from “Nurse Jackie“). Brown and Ireland, identified solely as numbers 2 and 3 in the Playbill, lend a supportive but infinitely important stance, creating the landscape for Charley to walk through, side by side, with all the characters these two can forcibly dig up.
“Can I stop you there?” one says to another, reminding us what and who this journey is all about and for. Brown unpacks authentic perfection in her roles, particularly the mother who is told that “This isn’t your story.” She unearths a maternal figure from the ground up, and delivers her to us as naturally as can be, but with complications etched in deep. The narrative unfolds its precise roots in the dirty landscape of New York City, delivered mostly by the captivating and utterly compelling Ireland, who walks us down that path without sentiment or drama. There’s warmth in her voice, especially in the inconsequential, softening her stance when needed, but never forgetting the pathway forward. The play doesn’t always hold our attention completely, losing or forgoing its powerful engagement that these three actors are working so hard to envelop and maintain, but the Morning Sun feels good, simple, and true. It’s connecting rays fill the space with light in this lovely little theatre, making us glad for the rising of this Sun and the grace and talent of these three artists.
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