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Seeing the Light 

There's probably no more useful and dubious virtue than early rising to illustrate a generation gap. In Morning, Noon and Night, Gussie Black (Patricia McGuire-Hill) wades right into the godliness of getting going before the sun rises to the profound annoyance of her grandson Ben Marvin (Tony Felix) and his caretaking aunt Ida (Benita Scott). Anyone afraid they're in for a long sermon from a self-appointed saint can enjoy the laughs at her expense when it becomes clear that she's rousted the household at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m., and the 12-year-old Ben becomes the angelic voice of innocence and reason for wondering what drives his crazed grandmother.

Morning, Noon and Night may not have the catchiest of titles, but it literally reflects the three acts staggered over the course of a day in the two-and-a-half-hour play. It also gets at the three generations on stage, almost like the Sphinx's riddle. In the end, however, grandmother and grandson aren't just generations apart, they're worlds apart.

Written by one-time Dillard University professor Ted Shine, Morning, Noon and Night starts with the easy humor of low-brow Bible thumping and immediately drops heavy hints about Gussie's sometimes lethal cooking. But Shine sets his sights on much more revealing inner dramas, and under Anthony Bean's direction, the veteran cast very ably reveals its primary characters, Gussie and Ben, and their inner struggles. The play keeps the laughs coming, but it all comes full circle with elements that are both comic and tragic.

Universally, the cast does an excellent job. McGuire-Hill brings out Gussie's twisted inner workings. Young Tony Felix shines in a demanding role. Scott is all grace and poise as Ida, and Brittany James' Sister Sue is boisterous.

Shine was born in Baton Rouge and grew up in Dallas. He sets this play in Earth, Texas, in the 1950s. He notes that the play takes place in the fall and coupled with the sense of time in the title, the play seems to be very consciously suggesting the characters are caught in the midst of changing times. While Gussie is of an older generation and leans solely on the Bible (which she often bends to her own will), young Ben is excited by literature. A former visiting teacher sends him books in the mail and he says he is fond of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin (though Baldwin's work was first published in the mid-1950s). It seems to suggest that Ben is growing up in a world in which he will have more opportunities and a different outlook than Gussie, who resents years of domestic labor and keeps a close and stingy eye on the means of support available to her.

McGuire-Hill does an excellent job of rattling off Gussie's spirited understanding of the good book. It's a fun and enlightening moment when she explains to Ben that Satan lived in heaven before he was kicked out for "chasing the girl angels and playing cards." Then again, maybe that was someone else's fall from grace, someone closer to home. McGuire-Hill proves equally up to the task of carrying Gussie's vulnerability, suspicions and resentments to their outrageous and wicked ends.

As the morning gets going, we watch as Gussie, a newly permanent house guest, tries to assume control of the household. She's feisty and assertive and quickly retreats into a bluster of scripture and her supposedly advanced wisdom. It turns out that Ben's parents are dead, his mother just recently deceased, and perhaps there are some unanswered questions about how that came to pass. Ida, Ben's aunt, has stepped in to care for him and is perhaps kidding herself that Gussie isn't already calling the shots. Gussie has a wooden leg and takes particular joy in making her rounds about town to share the latest gossip. Ida misses how deadly serious she can be.

Gussie's preaching to Ben Marvin lets everyone in on just how little her beliefs have to do with scripture. And it's righteously funny when she mistakes Ben for a prophet after he speaks in tongues. Though it's also part of the richness of the play that what seems to start as a prank for Ben becomes something more. Ben seems impressionable enough to believe his own lie. By that point, it's clear that Gussie has been lied to by men before and nurses a sense of hurt and betrayal. She's been tempted to play god herself and sought her own vengeance.

As the wolf in sheep's clothing, Gussie is a force to be reckoned with. Ben is acutely aware that she's capable of spiking the stew with the roach paste she's bought in town. But he is too young to see the way she tries to poison his mind. Gussie plays on his fear of losing Ida. Perhaps a glaring flaw in the play (as written) is the convenient arrival of Sister Sue Willie Hollis (Brittany James), although her breathless interest in Ben is very entertaining. Gussie is rightly suspicious of her too, but is in no position to cast the first stone.

If nothing else, the play shows that an eye for an eye may be an acceptable form of justice, but literally, it's a gruesome one.

click to enlarge Gussie (Patricia McGuire-Hill, front) becomes a permament - and not so pleasant house guest in Morning, Noon and - Night.
  • Gussie (Patricia McGuire-Hill, front) becomes a permament and not so pleasant house guest in Morning, Noon and Night.
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