BWW Review: MORNINGSIDE at Georgia Ensemble Theatre
MORNINGSIDE, Payne's latest collaboration with GET Co-Founder and Artistic Director Robert J. Farley, follows the Driscoll family as they attempt to come together for a baby shower in present-day Atlanta.
Payne has created a colorful cast of nine women playing characters who are strong, complicated, and riddled with personal and professional problems: Grace, mother of pregnant Devyn and wild rule-breaker Clancy, is reeling from recent martial problems; Louise and Roxanne have come to Atlanta to help their sister, Grace, throw a baby shower for Devyn; Mackenzie and Sophie have been invited because they are Devyn's friend and co-worker; Elinor has invited herself because she is Devyn's work acquaintance; and Felicia is there as moral support for Grace.
These women that Payne has created in this conflict-laden piece are strong-willed and unhappy. And while his writing shines when it is being passionately shouted by these talented actresses, it lacks the heart and emotional connection that is needed to offer a release from the monotony of confrontation.
As the events of the play unfold it becomes clear that while Payne is known for his wit and humor, many of his jokes fall flat, and the dialogue is unwieldy and drawn out. But Payne seems to shine when real conflict is introduced and the personalities of his characters are expressed through arguments between several actresses, and he seems to be quite adept at accessing the primal emotion that anger elicits in his characters.
These women are at their liveliest when they are passionate and distraught, and these moments give the audience something to feel in a piece that is mostly exposition and a slow build-up to sudden complications that explode, then peter out quickly.
The real stars of the show were two of the younger cast members, Gina Rickicki (Devyn) and Kate Donadio (Clancy). The two sisters, around whom the baby shower revolves, feed off of each other well, and their fights were some of the most fleshed-out and real in the show. Cutting through the sadness and anger from the other characters, Elinor, Devyn's office manager and acquaintance, offered some of the best one-liners and memorable scenes due to LaLa Cochran's impeccable comedic timing.
While MORNINGSIDE seemed to be a story about a family who, at one time, probably loved one another, it ended as jumbled as it began with little emotional support for the choices and relationships the characters chose to act upon in the end. Some characters left the stage angry and unforgiving; others seemed to make up without ever actually doing so through meaningful dialogue. And in the end, the family is just as broken as it was before the play started, only now they have dragged friends down with them.
Topher Payne has written MORNINGSIDE in such a way that after two hours of being bombarded with social and political controversies-divorce, abortion, racism, gay rights, debilitating disease-the audience has not become particularly fond of these characters or their beliefs. While the play runs just over two hours (with a 15 minute intermission), even this amount of time is not sufficient to explore every topic Payne has tried to cram into this piece, never fully exploring more than one or two before the lights go down.
In the end, their lives are still a mystery to those who have watched them go about this day arguing and tearing each other down before barely building each other back up. It seems you're left with little hope for the future of the Driscoll women who are about to embark on another journey: watching another child grow up amidst their chaotic lives.
Future iterations of this work should focus on what truly matters to these characters and redevelop the emotional journeys that the play has strung together into something more cohesive.
There are faint traces of familial love and respect and moments when Payne's writing is funny, not because of its local references-though there are many-but because of his wit and snappy characters. But if you go into this play judging it by its cast and creative team, remember that-contrary to the slogan "Appearance is Everything" on the front of the MORNINGSIDE program-appearance isn't always everything, and just because hilarious and talented women are on stage, doesn't mean that what unfolds will be an uplifting or hopeful story.