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Morning Star

Sylvia Regan's 1940 play about a Jewish family in New York is too soap opera-like to be fully satisfying. logo
Allan Mirchin, Steve Sterner, and Susan Greenhill
in Morning Star
(© Dick Larson)
Sylvia Regan's Morning Star, currently being revived by the Peccadillo Theater Company at the Bank Street Theatre, has everything but the kitchen sink. That's only because a kitchen isn't revealed in set designer Joseph Spirito's Lower East Side Manhattan tenement-flat. While Regan's family drama, first produced on Broadway in 1940 and rarely seen since, has its effective stretches, the woe-is-me atmosphere may be too soap-opera-oriented to satisfy most of today's audiences.

There isn't much that doesn't happen to Jewish immigrant Becky Felderman (Susan Greenhill) as she fights from 1911 to 1931 to keep her family intact. The Mother Courage-like figure exclaims early on of the United States, "Only good can come to us here." Oh, really? The instant she utters the remark, patrons are alerted to the jinx she's called on herself and dear ones. Persevering Becky simply can't foresee the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, the First World War, the heady Jazz Age and the heartless Great Depression -- just about everything that affected and afflicted first- and second-generation urban Jews.

Indeed, daughter Esther (Caroline Tamas) doesn't make it past that now-historic fire. She leaves behind scholarly fiancé Harry Engel (Matthew DeCapua), who is coveted by oldest businesswoman-in-the-making sister Sadie (Lena Kaminsky). Middle sister Fanny (Darcy Yellin) quits show business to marry struggling and eventually womanizing Irving Tashman (Josh Philip Weinstein). Brother Hymie (Michael Tommer at age 13, then David Lavine) is old enough by 1917 to enlist in the Army with an outcome that will surprise no ticket buyer. Boarding in the Felderman household is ardent capitalist Aaron Greenspan (Steve Sterner), who's constantly arguing with socialist pal Benjamin Brownstein (Peter J. Coriaty) about sweatshops, unions, and the repressive ruling class.

While immersing the fatherless Felderman clan in their travails, Regan also supplies heavy doses of the larger political issues dogging the growing Jewish community and the country. Regan -- who was born in 1908 and who was taken by her mother to see the aftermath of the Triangle fire when she was just three years old -- was writing about what she knew, and what she knew wasn't entirely jolly. So her determination to pack so much in a witness-to-history play is understandable and even admirable. But when family calamity is piled on disaster, eventually the bottom is like a cheaply constructed tenement floor: it gives way.

By the time Regan reaches her third act (this production has one intermission), the tribulations stalking the Felderman clan in their Broome Street confines begin to elicit titters. Worse, too many of the developments are predictable -- not the least of them when Harry quits teaching to join Sadie in her millinery enterprise. And all theatergoers worth their salt will spot the show's final image approaching from as far away as the Bronx.

To bring the Feldermans to brimming and fractious life, director Dan Wackerman has assembled a strong cast; yet he has asked them to speak with more of an accent than Regan requested. (In an author's note, she worried about the "danger of caricaturing the lines.") Eventually, though, they become as authentic-sounding as Gail Cooper-Hecht's period costumes are authentic-looking. Greenhill, small but feet firmly planted, has the most to do and does if efficiently. She's especially abetted by Kaminsky, Yellin and Tamas, DeCapua, Weinstein, and Sterner. Appropriately, their stamina is equal to that of the beset Feldermans.

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