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BWW Review: Family Matters, Matters Of The Heart, And Deep Southern Pride Extends No Matter How Far You May Go With MORNINGSIDE at Stageworks Theatre

BWW Review: Family Matters, Matters Of The Heart, And Deep Southern Pride Extends No Matter How Far You May Go With MORNINGSIDE at Stageworks Theatre

Topher Payne's witty, smart, and sharply fine-tuned work Morningside gives an ingenious glimpse into the lives of eight women some friends, but mostly family. Grounded deep in Southern Pride, heartfelt lessons, and the idea that above all family is what matters most proves to be the heart of this side-splitting "mother of all baby showers." In 2015 Topher Payne was interviewed for Backstage Magazine where he described his writing style by saying, "If you can make someone laugh, they listen. And they lean in and they want to hear more. And once you have that level of engagement, then you can start layering in a message that you want them to take away. You can do that in film. You can do that in a book. But the act of being in the same room with the storyteller is just fundamentally different. It lands differently." The cast, crew and entire company making up the ensemble of Morningside should be exceptionally proud of the work that was shown onstage; for the "Mother of all Baby Showers," turned out to be one of the finest displays of ensemble acting to come from one company of outstanding actresses. Everyone in the audience and the Tampa theatre community respectively didn't quite know but over the course of two-hours found this to not be the show they wanted but to be the show they needed.

The set design created by Director Scott Cooper is immaculate and a beautiful representation of home in which a well-off Southern woman resides. Harking to such spectacle of Designing Women and the Plantation swept up in Gone with the Wind; this design is so intricate there is something to catch the eye at every glance. I think Producing Artistic Director Karla Hartley says it best in her notes by saying, "Wit and Eloquence. Strength and Softness. Dignity and Grace. These are the qualities of the quintessential Southern Woman. Moonlight and Magnolias with a Spine of Steel." With every essence of these words, the audience felt at home, a part of the family and at the end of the day found their own connection with each of these women portrayed here. Scott Cooper and the artistic team created a framework like that of a well-oiled machine and its co-habitants merely storytellers that for a gripping two-hours invited us over for Prosecco, deep lessons grounded in Southern Pride and Southern Charm, and a lot of laughter. Suddenly we all felt like Sugarbakers, Hollingsworths, and many other Southern Dynasties that come to mind.

Like any party or family affair, there is much to attend to before the guest of honor arrives. Three sisters enter at random creating different textures and layers to the parties' atmosphere. Louise from Dallas is busying around preparing snacks, and with the help of Felicia from Atlanta tidying up the house while the Matriarch is nowhere to be seen. Grace the "Mother" of Devyn and Clancy is hiding out upstairs and makes a daring entrance to steal a box of cookies and a bottle of wine and make her return before anyone notices. In walks Roxanne from New York, the world-renowned Architect more married to her work and a bottle of Vodka than the girls can stand. The three sisters in light of Grace's non-existent presence are all on-edge about the hosting of this baby shower and being unsure of how Grace will react. Grace finally appears and while donning a brand-new hair color and style is trying to shrug off any obscurity and uneasy feeling that may have entered the room. You see Grace and her husband are in the middle of a heated divorce, and while Grace is heartbroken, it seems her husband has moved on and moved out. Felicia took it upon herself to narrow the party from 20 to 8 without Grace's knowledge. Unsure of how Grace will react Felicia thought it might be wise to just have a small intimate family party rather than a room full of witnesses. Devyn enters and as the "guest of honor" arrives early to her mother's surprise. Donning just a slip Grace enters shocked at the early arrival of her daughter and retreats upstairs to put on her dress. Mackenzie enters and changes from scrubs to sundress and catches up with all of the sisters and Devyn her best friend. Two more arrivals; Sophie a colleague of Devyn's and the entrance of Elinor Devyn's office manager like a whirlwind take the room by storm. One final arrival, Devyn's younger sister Clancy and the party is underway.

Through a myriad of senseless Baby Shower games, a few arguments, and lots of Prosecco this turns out to be a Baby Shower unlike anything imagined. Side-splitting moments ensue from the melted chocolate bar on the diaper, to the dismemberment of a child's beloved teddy bear, Topher Payne's script is a masterpiece and this company does the work justice. I think what makes Topher Payne's work so smart is the presence of these deeply grounded, often unifying and hard-hitting lessons that are woven so intricately into the story. One minute you are laughing so hard tears are welling, and the next you are hit with a lesson so deserving, you begin to question your own morals. That is why I think this works so well and is the show we didn't know we needed. So relevant to today, I think Roxanne says it best, "I have the people I came from and that's different. "

The 9 women that make up this company are exquisite. I think Scott Cooper says it best in his Director's notes by saying, "These girls were all so different (shy, outgoing, gossip, strict, popular) but they made the most perfect group. They found and balanced each other out so amazingly well. The women of Morningside have this quality too. If you took one of them out the story- it just wouldn't work." There is not a weak link in the entire ensemble.

Melody Craven is the glue that holds the entire fiasco together and she does so with grace and poise. Her Lousie Bouchard Carlisle is the perfect balance of Southern Charm, and Southern Soul. She is a family woman at heart and everything feels put together when she is around. Kym Welch does a fine job as Felicia Taggart and she should be commended for her work here. She keeps Grace grounded in every way possible through wit, and sass only found in Southern Charm. Karla Hartley is exceptional as Roxanne Bouchard. Every moment to moment is grounded; every nuance is perfectly assembled in this character. From the moment she enters her presence packs a punch, and her dialogue delivers some deep-rooted lessons not found in the bottom of a glass, but in the bottom of her heart; a very sobering portrayal that should be commended, and will be remembered for time to come. This is one way as many others that the women of Morningside are so genuine and so relatable which is why this works so well.

Susan Haldeman is stellar as Grace Bouchard Driscoll the overbearing, and sometimes neurotic Matriarch of the house. She wants to do right by her daughter, and right by her family no matter the cost. Her performance is grounded in every aspect that makes even the over-the-top antics that is a mirror-image of any mother trying to hold it together amidst heartbreak seem genuine. Jamie Giangrande-Holcolm is wonderful as Devyn Driscoll, and the perfect mother to be. Her timing is exceptional and her back and forth with sister Clancy is so fine-tuned you're drawn in from the first moment. Emily Belvo as Clancy Driscoll is comedic gold here. From her first entrance to talking about Lizzo and every antic that ensues completely steals the scene. She is wonderful here and her heartfelt moments are as genuine as they come. Molly Healey is the perfect best friend you've always wanted as Dr. Mackenzie Novak. Like any good friend should do she is present and available no matter the cost and you feel her heart in every nuanced moment, and she should be lauded here. Kari Goetz as Sophie is the woman in the office you never want to cross and she does this representation justice here. She is our Miranda Priestly, and her delivery is so spot on. Jonelle Meyer as Elinor Hughes will make you fall out of your chair from laughter. From the moment she enters wearing the unforgettable prom dress, to the melted-chocolate on the diaper you cannot help but laugh. If there was an award for outstanding comedic performance, bar none this would be hers by a landslide. Like a bad- accident you cannot and do not want to look away and our ability to witness her performance in this arena was undoubtedly the finest comedic work to come from an actress in some time. Allison Glock says it best when she says, "Southern women can say more with a cut of their eyes than a whole debate club's worth of speeches," the same truth is upheld here and is done with precision.

Like I said above there is not a weak link in this entire company and Scott Cooper was right in saying that if one of these characters left the story just wouldn't work. The latter can be stated and held true here for after seeing this production with this exceptional cast, I cannot imagine it any other way. Every second of this performance is unbelievably good. Topher Payne's sharp and witty Morningside is on- stage through February 23, at Stageworks Theatre. If you had the pleasure of seeing this production then consider yourself lucky, as a majority of the shows were completely sold out. Not often do we have the chance to experience such a well-produced work of theatre such as this. Stageworks and the entire company of Morningside should be proud of the work they created here, and to all these women who from the moment they stepped on stage they left it all out there with such gusto, and vulnerability, "...Thank you for being a friend!" You can find out more about the exceptional work being produced at Stageworks Theatre during their "Connections" season by visiting

Photo Credit: Stageworks Theatre

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From This Author - Drew Eberhard