Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Morning Sun
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
Review by Rick Pender

Annie Fitzpatrick, Becca Howell, and Christine Dye
Photo by Mikki Schaffner Photography.
Plays and movies generally tell stories about people or events that are extraordinary. That is not the case with the current production at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, Simon Stephens's Morning Sun, a show that debuted Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2021. The story is enacted by three actresses who portray the 60+ years of existence experienced by Charley McBride (Annie Fitzpatrick), bracketed by insights and interactions with her mother Claudette (Christine Dye) and her daughter Tessa (Becca Howell).

Fitzpatrick plays Charley from her birth to her death in 110 kaleidoscopic, intermissionless minutes. Dye and Howell also perform convincingly as numerous others–random acquaintances, friends, lovers, and husbands. Charley frequently interacts with one or the other of them in ways familiar to mothers and daughters, sometimes loving, sometimes critical, sometimes anxious. Those tend to be in pairs, with the third performer standing aside or upstage and offering some commentary or filling in some blanks. Stephens uses this ingenious mechanism to provide a full spectrum of insight into lives that are full of normal everyday ups and downs–funny, painful, frustrated, judgmental and heartfelt.

Director D. Lynn Meyers has enabled her actors to perform with etched precision. Claudette, Charley and Tessa are vividly portrayed, but even the lesser characters played by Howell and Dye use convincing and distinctive physical presences. Howell is Charley's thoughtful father and a childhood friend who becomes distanced as an adult; Dye takes on several men in Charley's life. Meyers and her cast offer a remarkable showcase of acting talent in this production.

The three women each inhabit the same apartment across the years, passing it along from one generation to the next. The fifth-floor walk-up in New York City's Greenwich Village with a view of the city's skyline has been created onstage (the muted backdrop is the work of scenic charge artist Rae Kuhn) with ETC's usual attention to detail by scenic and lighting designer Brian c. Mehring and properties curator Shannon Rae Lutz.

The play's title is inspired by Edward Hopper's painting of the same name, a woman staring out a window as early sunshine streams into her bare bedroom. Her blank expression masks her thoughts–is she lonely or peaceful, anxious or simply daydreaming? The ordinary scene seems a fitting inspiration for this play about everyday lives. Stephens employs sunlight in a variety of inspirational and metaphorical ways to expand the texture and details of Charley's life.

Fitzpatrick, a veteran of many ETC productions, gives Charley's vulnerabilities a full range as she proceeds through life and relationships, often giving voice to her fears about the choices she is making. But she has moments of insight and strength that let audiences plumb Charley's psyche more fully, and her deathbed monologue listing things she'd still love to do is heartfelt and not at all maudlin. Charley's passing is made all the more impactful by a rendition near the show's end of "Song to a Seagull" by Joni Mitchell, Charley's favorite vocalist and a singer Tessa has come to love.

Dye's wry take on Claudette, often harshly judgmental of Charley's life decisions, feels natural and familiar, but Dye has the ability to overlay warmth and humor in ways that make her a likeable character. As Tessa, Howell brings forth a more contemporary young woman with aspirations and frustrations. Both women are entertaining to watch as they embody other characters, especially Howell as Brian, Charley's partner for a decade in a relationship that ends abruptly and unhappily, and Dye as Eddie, a painfully awkward guy with a heart of gold who brings eventual happiness to Charley.

ETC's "content advisory" warns that the production contains strong language and adult content, including themes and descriptions of violence, pregnancy and abortion, sexual situations, loss, homophobia and homophobic slurs, and alcohol and drug use. That's an accurate statement, but none of these happen gratuitously. In fact, they are part of the everyday existence of many people, including these women who face them honestly as they live their meaningful, thoughtful, and above all ordinary lives.

Morning Sun is a theater production for grown-ups, and it's well worth seeing.

Morning Sun runs through March 19, 2023, at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-421-3555.