Sylvia Regan's eternally optimistic Morning Star is a sugary throwback to better days. The play opened on Broadway in 1940, during an era when the American dream promised a glowing future to anyone willing to work. In keeping with the cloying hopefulness at the heart of the play, Main Street Theater's show, directed with boyish enthusiasm by Steve Garfinkel, is a bright, shining, happy production about the power of the human heart to overcome adversity.
At the opening of the story, we meet Becky Felderman (Karen Ross), a supremely sensible Jewish immigrant widow with three grown daughters and a pubescent son. They live snuggled together in a tight tenement on New York City's Lower East Side, along with a boarder named Aaron Greenspan (Thomas Baird), who is in love with handsome Becky.
The marathon (as one fellow theatergoer put it) three-act play covers lots of time and subject matter. Politics, culture and love all get their moments in the story. Act I opens at the beginning of the 20th century. Two of Becky's daughters, Esther (Kim Prause) and Sadie (Linda Boelsche), work in the Garment District. The other, Fanny (Shondra Marie), sings in a theater. And young Hymie (Tony Salinas) is about to have his bar mitzvah. Trouble first comes through the door in the form of Harry Engel (Josiah Franklin), the family tutor. He and Esther are secretly in love, while Sadie pines in private for the skinny teacher.
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.
Through April 17. $20-$30.
Other men clamor under the apartment's lintel. There's singing Fanny's dapper songwriter boyfriend, Irving Tashman (Brady Alland). We know he's going to be a heartbreaker when he takes Fanny out to fancy dinners wearing snappy suits even though he's dead broke. And then there's Benjamin Brownstein (Dan Braverman), a communist who's always yammering about the conditions of the American worker. He turns out to be the most prescient of the group -- Esther and Sadie traipse off to work in happy ignorance on the day of the infamous Triangle Factory Fire, a real historical catastrophe in which 146 workers died, locked in on the burning top floors of the Asch Building.
Act II fast-forwards us to World War I. Hymie is grown by the time America enters the war, and he marches off to Europe in hopes of saving the world. Aaron Greenspan is still in unrequited love with mother Becky. Fanny becomes pregnant with Irving's child. She wants them to move to California so that he can write music for the motion picture business, but he thinks movies are a passing phase in American culture. And Sadie's now a hard-hearted businesswoman working for the now-successful Greenspan in the garment industry.
The conflicts come to a head in the third act. It's 1931. All the children are gone or having problems, but Becky, always the survivor despite her family's troubles, finally has a new couch and a maid to whom she says very wise things, such as "A person has to have patience to live through history while they are making it!" The comedy/ drama ends with a feel-good moment in which we watch history repeating itself the way family life is supposed to.
This narrative represents the sort of "upbeat" mid-20th-century theater that has been replaced by Lifetime Television and Hallmark movies. And like a made-for-TV film, this production has a sunny and utterly generic gloss to it. Everything here -- from the Jewish accents to Ruth Dentel's period costumes -- is done in broad strokes. We know what each is supposed to represent, and that, the production seems to say, should be enough. No need to reach for gritty authenticity.
The performers are an attractive bunch, though a bit stiff (especially the younger members of the cast). Only Braverman, as the always angry communist Brownstein, commands the stage with a truly natural presence. He alone seems completely at home in this tenement world, though Ross's Becky and Baird's Aaron are likable and completely pleasant characters. But of course, running at just under three hours, with two intermissions, the production presses well into the outer reaches of pleasant.
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