Think of the nine women who make up the cast of Morningside at Stageworks Theatre as a basketball team, running and thrusting and parrying and never staying put for too long, passing the focus between them like something round and orange and decidedly fluid.
To belabor this (already strained) metaphor, Morningside comes complete with the occasional slam dunk.
The thing is, like basketball, the thrills of Stageworks’ take on Topher Payne’s comedy come in watching the teamwork. That’s how it scores.
“There is something extraordinarily powerful and profound,” says cast member Kari Goetz, “about being a female comedic actress and realizing that laughs aren’t being done at your expense because you’re a woman, or as the foil to a man, which is a very common comedic construct.
“And when all your funny comes from fellow women, it’s a very powerful thing.”
On the surface, Morningside is about a baby shower. Simple enough. Pregnant Devin is at the suburban Atlanta home of her mother, Susan, where everyone is gathering to play silly games, eat cake and watch the mother-to-be open gifts. Aunties Louise and Roxanne have flown in for the … party.
Nothing, of course, goes as planned. Family wounds are opened, simmering rifts are exposed, friendships are tested.
On one hand, Morningside is a variation on Steel Magnolias or Designing Women, dripping with southern-fried sarcasm and mixing comedy and hi-jinx with from-the-heart confessions.
But there’s so much more than that.
“I think ‘fascinating’ is the right word for it,” points out Emily Belvo, who plays Devyn’s estranged sister Clancy. “It’s fascinating to see nine women do completely different characters, and then molded into these different conflicts and stories, and how we react and interact.”
Under Scott Cooper’s direction, Morningside is an ensemble piece that remarkably pulls together nine individual talents.
Says Karla Hartley, Stageworks’ artistic director, who makes a rare acting appearance in the show as Roxanne: “We all give each other our space, to have our thoughts and our feels. Men are lovely, don’t get me wrong, but the generosity that we offer each other, onstage and off, is significant. It’s a special thing I think you only get with a cast of talented, wonderful funny women.”
Four members of the cast – Belvo, Hartley, Goetz (as Devyn’s office mate Sophie) and Jamie Giagrande-Holcom (Devyn) – worked together in two years-apart Stageworks productions of the comedy Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.
Which means they long-ago developed a kind of comedic shorthand. “It’s so much fun to play onstage with your friends,” Giagrande-Holcom enthuses. “And I am blessed and lucky to do that every night. We just play – lights up, and we’re having fun.”
Playing pregnant came with a sense of déjà vu for the actress, who’s also artistic director the sketch comedy troupe Some Kind of Show, based at Stageworks.
“Scott and Karla came to me and said they were doing this and they wanted me to audition,” she explains. “I told them that’s awesome, but I’m actually pregnant. I was due in October, and they said ‘Great! We want to do the show in February.’ I told them ‘I’m not an elephant. I will not be holding the baby in.’ But it all worked out.”
Her daughter is now four months old, “so putting the pregnancy pad on is a little PTSD. And a little like phantom pains – it’s very odd.”
Susan Haleman, who happens to be managing director of freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, is the center of the show’s gravity as the overbearing, worrisome Susan.
“I was really excited when I first saw the cast list, because these are all women that I haven’t gotten to be onstage with, ever,” she says.
“I saw several of them in Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche and I thought that show was hilarious. All the ladies in it were so solid and wonderful that I was like ‘Oh, maybe some day I’ll get to play with them onstage.’ And now I’m getting to.”
Haleman doesn’t hesitate when asked about show’s Most Valuable Player: “I love Melody Craven, who plays Louise. She was someone I’d never seen before, and I have just been bowled over by her ever since we started. I just think she’s so natural – she’s many of the things that I aspire to be.
“We’ve played a lot of similar roles in different places, so that’s probably why we’ve never crossed paths.”
Jonelle Meyer – most recently seen in the Jobsite comedy Meteor Shower – players Elinor, a dimbulb from the office where Devyn and Sophie work. Nobody invited her to the baby shower, but she shows up anyway.
Wearing a horror show of a taffeta gown, and a tiara, Elinor is the overt comic relief – her comments are as inappropriate as her dress.
“It is such an ensemble play – without one person, the play doesn’t exist or make sense,” Giangrande-Holcom believes.
Having said that, she adds, the comic relief provided by Meyer-as-Elinor is a rich and crucial vein that runs through the show. “So I would say her dress, Elinor’s dress, is the show MVP.”
Meyer, like the others, confesses that she’s finding it a blast to be a member of this particular ensemble. “Comedy is my absolute favorite thing to do,” she says. “I love playing all kinds of stuff.
“Elinor is ridiculous, and I’m ridiculous. You can’t help but absolutely love her. She’s almost a breath of fresh air, even though the other characters might not see it that way. She just brings this whole new dynamic to this party.
“In her weird way, through this craziness, Elinor forces people to discover things. She forces people to kind of look at who they really are. She truly doesn’t have a mean bone in her body – she knows how to call you out. She wants people to know she cares about them, but sometimes does it in the worst way.”
Tickets and info here.