It’s not every day that I have the chance to interview someone with a first name similar to mine, Pat. It was an amusing thought to have while I dialed Patty McCormack’s number one morning. We shared a quick laugh about our names before I asked her about her latest role in Morning’s at Seven, currently in previews at the Theatre at St. Clement’s. Paul Osborn’s comedy was first produced in New York in 1939, with two major revivals since then. McCormack’s role of Esther Crampton was played by Maureen O’Sullivan in 1980 and Piper Laurie in 2002.
It’s 1922, and the four Gibbs sisters are in their late ’60s, residing near each other with their husbands. When beloved son and nephew Homer (Jonathan Spivey) brings fianceé Myrtle (Keri Safran) to meet the family, things take a turn as betrayals and feelings come to light. The all-star cast also includes Lindsay Crouse, Alma Cuervo, Dan Lauria, Patty McCormack, Alley Mills, Tony Roberts, and John Rubinstein. Dan Wackerman directs this lively production about the American family. It opens November 15 on a strictly limited engagement through January 9, 2022.
It would be very difficult to find someone who hasn’t seen McCormack’s work, with a career spanning more than seven decades across theater (Touchstone, The Bad Seed), film, and television. She was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe for her performance in The Bad Seed. McCormack’s many film credits include Kathy O’, Huckleberry Finn, Bug, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Her major television roles include Peck’s Bad Girl, I Remember Mama, The Ropers, Dallas, and The Sopranos; as well as more than 250 appearances as a guest on hit shows like Playhouse 90, Route 66, Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, Grey’s Anatomy, NYPD Blue, and General Hospital.
Having been in the industry since the 1950s, what’s one aspect of film and television that’s been incredible to you?
It’s funny how you always view things looking back. I would say the live television days were really sort of electric…because what went out on the air actually went out. There was no time where they could do something to it.
Exactly. No takebacks!
Right? I would say looking back that had to be probably the scariest way to work, just like theater except that it covered a larger audience. Sometimes in the theater if something went awry, you know you had the next performance to fix it, but only the people there saw it. My answer would be live drama television.
What’s the most unique set or theater space you’ve ever performed in?
It’s funny that there are so many avenues now. I have a friend that does indie things for the web on his iPad. You can do these anywhere: be in a restroom in a restaurant somewhere. I’ve had some really strange places that I’ve worked.
The ones I remember so much are the theaters in New York when I was a kid. There was the 46th Street Theatre. There was the Coronet Theatre, [which is] the O’Neill now. The Music Box! These wonderful theaters that are still the same; I remember those fondly.
I know you did some filming within the last 18 months. Did you try Zoom readings or plays before coming back to in-person shows?
I didn’t do any plays. I had lots of what they call self-tape auditions, where you put yourself on tape on your phone. It was all going on during COVID, which was an education right there because it’s new media. It never ends! Just when you think you understand something, it becomes something else. I did have a lot of experience though with lighting, getting a backdrop, and all of that, but no actual working. Our work really came to a halt during all this [and] for most people.
If the characters in Morning’s at Seven were real, which one would you take out for coffee?
Boy, we’re such a group. We’re like—I hate to use a corny analogy—a wheel with different spokes in it and we then become the family. You’re asking me to pick one of the spokes.
You can say all of them if you’d like.
I think the person you’d want to take out for coffee is the one you knew least about. I know the least in the story about Myrtle—only what other people say and not from personal experience. Homer, I know because he’s my sister’s son. I’m his aunt. Myrtle is definitely one that we don’t know the history on, only hearsay. So I think I’d go to coffee with Myrtle.
What do you like most about your character, Esther, who is the oldest of the sisters?
This is so ego-driven. [Laughs] We make jokes about this all the time. I like that she’s referred to as the prettiest. Somewhere down the line, they say that I was the smartest. I thought, “Boy, how could you beat that?”
We’re always kidding around about that kind of stuff. I’m the oldest, but not as old as my husband in it. I feel better about that.
Do you share any qualities with her?
She’s like the peacemaker. I can relate to that on some level, trying to be that sometimes. I think that’s true. In a way, I understand her not wanting to have waves when you can try to smooth them out.
I read on Theater Mania that Dan Lauria put your name forward during casting and that’s how you got your part. Did you know other cast members from before?
Yes, he did. I know Alley Mills. We figured out we haven’t seen each other in [over] 30 years. It’s connected to Dan also, when they did The Wonder Years. It was right after or maybe during the tail end. He would know better. We did all know each other in Los Angeles. It feels really familiar to see her now. We’ve had so much going on in our lives in these 30 years. It was really a reunion in a way.
What insights do you appreciate from Dan Wackerman, the director, as well as your fellow cast members throughout this rehearsal and previews process?
I got so many tips on what I had forgotten about theater in New York. Also, there’s the style of the play, the fact that the play does have a style and to be able to jump into it. I thank Dan Wackerman for that. [There’s] understanding the pacing of it and how important it is. I’ve gotten such good advice from John Rubinstein and Tony Roberts. Trying things in previews—that’s really the time for trying different things, being brave enough to do it, and for the joy you get from doing that. In a funny way, it is playing. It’s been all positive.
We share rooms. All the women share a room and all the men share a room. There’s a real camaraderie among us. Girls versus the guys and it’s really fun. [Laughs]
All in all, it’s such a present, I’ve gotta tell you. First of all, to be connected at a time in New York which is so special to every actor: to be in New York and working. Then to have it coming with the return of work in New York after COVID, as we’re doing better. We get tested twice a week and make sure everyone is healthy. There’s lots of rules about the audience being tested and masks. We have masks behind-the-scenes when we are not onstage or eating. We’re really following all of these things so we can come out of this successfully. It feels so good to be part of this history.
Looking at how Osborn wrote this play, what do you think it does to bring out the best in an actor?
What it helps bring out in me is the confidence to go with the writing and the confidence to jump into a character. It’s so fully formed. If you jump in and trust it, it’ll take you somewhere. That’s what I appreciate.
What is your favorite scene in the play?
We have our own favorites because every character gets to shine at some point. I think my favorite—it’s probably not the one you might think, where I come out and I’m very happy about having made a decision about something. I think my favorite scene is the very last moment in the play, where my husband, David—played by Tony Roberts—and I come together. It’s very quick and fleeting.
That’s my favorite right now. If you talk to me in two weeks, it might be something else.
In recent years, we’ve heard the call for stories to be more inclusive. Where would you like to see storylines and opportunities continue to shift for actors over 60?
Oh, boy. I root for that, definitely! I think more and more that is happening. I see it on television. I see a lot of things opening up. It’s just so hard to think about right now as we’re in the time of just coming back. I think the people that probably got hit the worst were the senior performers in COVID time: work-wise, health-wise, and everything else. The only benefit we had was being able to get the vaccine early.
Remember how they always talked about women after 40, when you reach that horrible age and then the world just dries up for actresses? They always said that! I see a total change in that trend. I see women of 40 and 50 like Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and other great actors. They are changing that whole story.
Holland Taylor from The Chair comes to mind when I think of over-60s.
Yes! And Catherine O’Hara from Schitt’s Creek is another. It’s like, “Yay!,” and that gives you hope. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are just terrific, [too].
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
I would share that I’m a living example in a funny way of thinking, well, everything is sort of status quo and I’m a grandma out in California. You know, I still work. Then suddenly, you take a left turn and a wonderful thing happens! You can have a whole new life experience. So, don’t ever give up hope because good things do come.