Actors are often reluctant to acknowledge the advancing years for fear that fewer choice roles will come their way. But Paul Osborn's vintage comedy "Morning's At Seven," which will open Friday at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, is tailor-made for actors such as 80-year-old Sabine Herts.
"As actors get older, they really have to start looking around for good roles," she observes from her apartment in a Victorian house in Glyndon, in northwest Baltimore County. "So I'm very happy to be in this play."
Her director is equally pleased to have so many senior citizens in the production.
"Of the nine people in the cast, seven of them are over 60," says director F. Scott Black, who is also managing director for the Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre. "They're always on time, and they take things very seriously. They're of the generation that knows what commitment is. They have a real work ethic and they're able to draw on their life experiences in creating their characterizations."
A comedy about the relationships between four sisters -- Ms. Herts plays one of them -- and their families in a Midwestern town in the early 20th century, "Morning's At Seven" has a history of calling attention to older theatrical talent.First staged in 1939, it didn't become a hit for its playwright until a Tony Award-winning 1980 revival. A touring version brought veteran actresses Maureen O'Sullivan, Teresa Wright and Elizabeth Wilson to Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre in 1982.
Ms. Herts laments the scarcity of such roles for older actors -- and even more so for older actresses. She says the current theatrical climate is in sharp contrast to the New York theater world she knew as a young woman.
"It's easier for men, who can age and play forever. Women don't have it so easy. By contrast, when I was a young woman, the stars were actresses supported by excellent actors. There were many great [female] stars on Broadway, like Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes and Judith Anderson.
"At that time, older actors often played younger Shakespearean roles, and it was not unusual to have a 40-year-old woman as Juliet. Now we've become a nation taken with youth. It's an economic thing, because young people buy a lot. Television and Madison Avenue determine what'll happen."
As she makes these criticisms, in an authoritatively throaty voice, a visitor sitting with her in the backyard gazebo remarks that the voice itself reminds him of the British actress Glynis Johns.
"I have a trained theater voice," she says, "and people have sometimes asked me if I'm English. I love Glynis Johns' voice. If I could only get that crack . . . I always had a very deep voice, and it was not the voice of the girl next door, so I got a lot of dramatic roles and did a lot of Shakespeare."
English she may sound, but English she is not. Sabine Herts was born into a theatrical family in New York City, with several relatives working as actors in vaudeville.
"I can never remember a time when I wasn't hanging around the theater and being in it," she says. "I would never discourage anyone from being in the theater."
Her own lucky break came when limited experience in acting workshops suddenly led to her being cast as a Chinese concubine in the 1934 Broadway version of Pearl Buck's novel "The Good Earth." Starring Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet and Alla Nazimova, the production had a pre-Broadway opening at the National Theater in Washington, a successful Broadway run and subsequent tour.
"There is nothing like Broadway," she says. "It means you've made it. You consider yourself a full-fledged actor. And I was playing with these great actors."
The same production involved another lucky break: The assistant set designer was an architect named John Herts. He also came from a theatrical family; his architect father designed New York theaters including the New Amsterdam. It was one of those theater romances, she says of the man she married in 1936. Their son, John, was born in 1939.
Ms. Herts continued working in smaller New York theaters, but family life took up more of her time. During a mid-1940s stint living in Grand Rapids, Mich., where her late husband redesigned factories for war- related industries, the acting bug again manifested itself in everything from "Macbeth" to "The Man Who Came to Dinner."
Once they returned to New York, she acted in some off-Broadway plays. But raising a growing son and contributing to the family income prompted her to become a sales representative for Wedgwood china at Bloomingdale's.
"Selling china is about the nicest thing you could do," she says of the genteel job she held for 20 years, before retiring and moving to Baltimore in 1984 in order to be near her son and his family.
"The first thing I did in Baltimore was find a theater," she says -- the Vagabond Players. She has gone on to act with other local companies, including Theatre Hopkins, Spotlighters, Fell's Point Corner Theatre and Towson Dinner Theater.
"Morning's At Seven" isn't the only theatrical activity at Essex Community College this summer. Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, founded in 1973 and now Maryland's largest summer theater, has two other shows opening Friday: the drama "A Man For All Seasons" on the outdoor courtyard stage and the musical "42nd Street" on the main stage.