Extraordinary Actresses on Their Ordinary Roles in ‘Morning Sun’

Simon Stephens’s “Morning Sun,” Edie Falco insisted, is not a big play. It isn’t epic or tragic or especially momentous. Its characters don’t change the world. They barely cast a shadow. Which Falco likes.

“It’s just people, just trying to get through stuff,” Falco said. “There’s something very beautiful about that.”

Falco, 58, was speaking, on an afternoon in early August, on a joint video call with her two castmates, Blair Brown, 75, and Marin Ireland, 41. In Stephens’s impressionistic new play, directed by Lila Neugebauer, they portray three generations of women, sharing the same Greenwich Village walk-up. These are extraordinary actresses, embracing ordinary lives. Unless a Covid-19 variant intervenes, they will begin previews on Oct. 12, at Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center Stage 1 space.

Brown (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Copenhagen”) plays Claudette McBride, a shopgirl who arrives in the city in 1947. Falco (“The Sopranos,” “Nurse Jackie,” “The House of Blue Leaves”) is her daughter, Charley. Ireland (“Homeland,” “Blasted”) is Charley’s daughter, Tessa. (The three actresses also fill in as the occasional friend, boyfriend and husband.) In a drama that spans 60 years, these mothers and daughters experience the choices and accidents that amount to a life.

This play, which borrows its title from an Edward Hopper study of urban anomie, has been in the works since 2018, when Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of Manhattan Theater Club, introduced Falco to Stephens (“Sea Wall,” “Blindness”). Ireland signed on soon after. Brown joined in 2019.

Though none of these women have ever worked together before, they share a dauntless approach to characters. And in an industry that has often privileged men’s stories, they have rarely played love interests, gravitating instead toward rougher, fiercer, less obliging roles. “Once you’re not the pretty girl for a while, you end up getting to do some wild stuff,” Ireland said.

In an hourlong conversation, the three women discussed “Morning Sun,” their nontraditional careers and what it means to return to the theater in uncertain times. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What can you tell me about these three women?

EDIE FALCO The woman I play, she’s a regular lady. What is so remarkable about her is that she’s not terribly remarkable.

BLAIR BROWN Tracy Letts once talked about how he wrote plays about the person who’s standing behind you at the dry cleaners. I feel like these women are those people. I’ve seen them. I’ve met them.

MARIN IRELAND It is so comforting to be in the presence of characters and to feel like they’re allowed attention. It’s the Willy Loman [the main character in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”] thing. But for a woman. It’s a big achievement just to get through life. That’s why this play strikes us in such a specific way now.

What attracted you to the play?

FALCO Working with just women is a big deal and a very unusual occurrence for me. And I just love, love, love doing a new play. I trust myself most in that place.

BROWN I kept wondering, if people want to go back to the theater, what do they want to see? Big things, fireworks, singing! So why are we doing this little play? Then when we did a Zoom reading. Every one of us fell apart. Edie, you said, ‘This has been a very hard year.’ And that’s it. You just want to see people just finding their [expletive] way.

How much choice do these women have in their lives? And how much is determined by fate and circumstance?

FALCO They all have choice. But I don’t think they know that they do. I think about my own mother. What a different life she would have had, had she been born when I was born. She was part of a generation of women who were expected to get married and have kids. A different person might have pushed through that and made some other choice. That’s not who she was.

BROWN Each of them, in their own way and in their own time, they’re testing where those limits are. Whether they bang into a wall or they get through it.

This is a play about mothers and daughters. There aren’t many of those, and they’re often dark — “Night, Mother,” “The Libation Bearers,” “The House of Bernarda Alba.” Why?

BROWN No female playwrights. No female playwrights in the classical canon.

IRELAND If you’re a female playwright now, and you write a play about a mother and a daughter, it’s going to feel like, Who’s going to want to see this? It’s going to feel like it’s for girls. A chick play. Their pressure is greater to make it appeal to a larger audience. Meaning men.

BROWN Where’s the women’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”?

What’s interesting about exploring that relationship onstage?

FALCO As the mother of a son and a daughter, mother-son relationships are not terribly complicated. But mother-daughter is really, really intense. It’s intense. My daughter is 13. And from the second she was born, I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ.’ This is not like with my boy. It’s emotional. It’s diabolical in a way. Really complicated.

Is there work that you’ll do to help the audience understand you as mothers and daughters?

IRELAND I’m excited to physicalize that genetic line. We are the kind of actors that will start to pick up each other’s vibe more and more, and feel more and more related.

Does Simon do a good job imagining himself into women’s lives?

BROWN He has a real tenderness toward all these characters, flawed and awful as they may be. A really compassionate way of looking at people, which is really rare. It’s not soft. There’s rigor to it. It’s not soft, and it’s not accepting of bad behavior, but there’s a sort of tenderness.

You’ve had decades-long careers in which you’ve somehow avoided playing wife, mom and girlfriend characters. Edie you played Carmela Soprano, one of TV’s most famous wives, but that’s a character with full interiority. So how did you do it?

BROWN If you’re a certain kind of person, you don’t actually get offered those particular roles. They knew you weren’t going to comply.

FALCO Up until I was 40, I was neither wife nor mother. That left me a lot of years of working where I was always being asked to imagine my way into roles that just didn’t have a resonance for me. I love that people think we make choices about what roles to take and not. I went where the work was.

IRELAND I’m still not a wife or a mother. Maybe never. Who knows? I definitely consciously made choices not to go after a lot of those parts. Because I didn’t relate to them. Sometimes I would have to argue with the agents, because I’d be like, I’m not going to go in for that. I’m not your gal if you’re telling a story about a mom and her kid. I’m not going to be as good at that as somebody else.

How did you dodge playing strictly likable characters?

BROWN I got called out to California. There used to be a system where they put you in all of these television shows, “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “The Rockford Files.” The parameters were so narrow, because you had to be so lovely all the time. The way I coped with it was actually to take a Valium every morning when I went to work. I went back to New York.

FALCO I need to like her, at least a little. Or I need to understand why she made the choices she did. What’s underneath all of it is people’s desire to connect, to be happy, not to suffer. If you can get to that on some visceral level, people tend to come for the ride.

IRELAND If we put the ugly parts of ourselves out there, then other people who see that won’t feel like those ugly parts are their private shame. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, O.K. Everyone’s like that.’ That’s a freeing thing to show people — the ugly stuff, the unlikable stuff. And it’s nothing to feel ashamed of. It’s part of why the three of us have ended up in this play.

What do you think it means to make a life as a woman in this business? And do you think the business is getting any better?

BROWN Parts are better, that’s for sure. But it’s still not easy. We still don’t get paid the same.

IRELAND I just came off [the upcoming FX show] “Y: The Last Man,” my first job with a female team. That’s new. And it feels exciting. But we’re still at a level of surface-level changes, where the people who are really calling the shots need to turn over. And that still hasn’t happened.

With the Delta variant circulating, putting on a play feels more fraught than it did even a few months ago. How do you handle that uncertainty?

FALCO I’m kind of heartbroken. I’m vaccinated, my children are vaccinated. So I don’t feel particularly anxious insofar as worrying about my well-being. I was just hoping it would be a celebration of theater coming back. I hope things don’t change that dramatically. I hope we’re still able to do it.

IRELAND Sadly, I feel prepared for anything, I feel prepared for them to call me up and be like, ‘We’re pushing, we’re canceling, it’s going to be only on Zoom.’ I’m just grateful for the fact that as of right now, we’re going to start it. But it’s very much one day at a time.

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