The tranquil view on the Olney Theatre Center's old mainstage is of stately, inviting back porches. You can even see right into the kitchens of the two grand old Victorian houses sitting side by side in "Morning's at Seven," a gentle 1939 play about the four aging, bickering Gibbs sisters and their kin. The houses tower over the stage, and set designer James Wolk fills the scene with realistic details ranging from leafy branches hanging overhead to Mason jars and wicker baskets on the shelves inside.
Less realistic, though, is the approach director John Going takes with some of his actors. As a result, you can be happily caught off guard with laughter or, on the other hand, left flat just when you expect to be moved.
Going goads the comedy to absurdly broad levels, particularly in scenes involving Homer, the 40-year-old bachelor who is already feeling the same existential dread that's nagging his elders. Their demands and suspicions may be childish, but in Andrew Polk's aggressive and very funny turn, Homer elevates the hissy fit to performance art, stamping and flapping like a petulant swan.
The surprise is that this loping study of ordinary folks tolerates such an outsize presentation. Comedy isn't really the draw; tenderness is. In Paul Osborn's well-balanced story, everyone's going a little nuts, making desperate grabs for companionship and meaning. The aptly named Homer feels like he really ought to move out and marry Myrtle, but he's not quite sure he's ready to let go of his mother Ida's apron strings. You can see where he gets his angst: His father, Carl, keeps murmuring about the wrong turn he took in life, then resting his head against a tree like an ancient Charlie Brown.
The same situation is playing out in the house next door, more or less. Two of Homer's aunts live with a dapper gent named Thor. Cora is married to him, Arry is not, and Cora's tired of sharing her home with Arry, so somebody has to move out. Across town (and offstage), high-minded David Crampton has relegated Esty, his wife -- the fourth Gibbs sister -- to the second floor of their home. Her crime? Visiting her sisters and in-laws, whom he grandly labels "morons." (They're flattered that he speaks to them.)
It all mocks the notion that "God's in his heaven," to quote the Browning poem from which Osborn pulled his title. They are lost, hungry souls, and it's easy to get swept up in their longings. As Arry, Nancy McDoniel gets a scheming, almost wild-eyed look as her character worries about what Cora's planning. Meanwhile, Anne Stone's Cora blunders forward -- that is, away from Arry -- like a kid heading to a long-awaited recess. Sally Kemp, as Ida, clucks like a mother hen hoping her chick will finally fly the coop, and Halo Wines gives an attractively nuanced performance as Esty, an exiled woman willing herself to insouciance. The sisterly dynamic among these four actresses is persuasive.
The gents are solid, too. As Thor, John Dow's a randy dandy, and Dane Knell, sporting a boyish haircut, makes an agreeably addled Carl. There is something odd, though, about the fact that only James Slaughter, as the pompous but intimidating David, is allowed to cast a hush over the action. David's fancy airs scare everyone, and as Slaughter pauses before intoning David's mannerly insults, you truly feel something awful might happen.
That's how most of these characters feel most of the time, but the director's yen to entertain muffles that part -- the better part -- of the play; it's as if he doesn't really want to take any of it seriously. Paula Gruskiewicz's Myrtle is a particular casualty: the actress captures Myrtle's sweet hopefulness, yet dithers and coos like Olive Oyl in an attempt to match Polk's grimly pixilated Homer. His shtick gets over, hers doesn't quite, and you end up wishing that perhaps both had been a little more firmly grounded.
Even so, it's hard not to warm to Osborn's evergreen play. Its style occasionally recalls "Our Town," which emerged at about the same time and likewise cast a wry, philosophical eye on a family named Gibbs. The emotional current doesn't run quite so deep here, but its mellow babble is fine.
Morning's at Seven, by Paul Osborn. Directed by John Going. Lighting design, Tom Sturge; costumes, Liz Covey; sound design, Neil McFadden. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through Oct. 30 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.