Describing how her third husband could never measure up to her first, “he didn’t make me shiver” says Bernice, a middle-aged Negro housekeeper to her charge, Frankie Addams, a tomboyish, 12 year old white girl. The conversation might seem extraordinary given the age difference, especially in an ordinary household in an ordinary town in the American South in 1945. But Southern author Carson McCullers knew all-too-well that Jim Crow society allowed only rare spaces for any open talk between races. Through the special relationship between Berenice and Frankie, McCullers peered down into that space in THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. Now, in a quietly elegant revival at Williamstown Theatre Festival, director Gaye Taylor Church and a phenomenal leading cast, reveal how deep in its recesses the timelessness of the 1950 drama lies.
Berenice’s domain, the dramatic venue, for MEMBER OF THE WEDDING is the kitchen of the Adam’s household. Joining Bernice and Frankie there daily is Frankie’s 6 year old cousin, John Henry. The three are social misfits. Bernice as a Black woman has two strikes against her in the white men’s world outside the kitchen. Alone after four husbands – lonely, too - she worries about her only relative, half brother Harry, whom trouble besets, especially when he’s been in that "no good reefer.” Frankie’s a loner, too: her mother died in childhood. She can’t keep friends her own age and lords over younger kids, like John Henry, commanding them in costume pageants in the backyard. John Henry’s an odd little boy. He’s fond of Frankie’s old doll, dons pretty costumes from Frankie’s plays and admits to witnessing a coupling of two men in the back alley. (He doesn’t know what it was but it “wasn’t kissing.”) Berenice’s surrogate motherhood of Frankie suits her father just fine. He’s less distant to the liquor bottle on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard than he is from pre-teen daughter Frankie.
Dark creeps around outside the kitchen even in the summer light of the afternoon when Frankie’s much older brother comes home from Army duty with a beautiful fiancé to announce their wedding the weekend hence. Frankie becomes obsessed with the wedding. Bernice, with immediate clarity and honesty, proclaims “you’re jealous.”
McCullers doesn’t muster much obvious conflict in the first act, instead slowly but steadily exposing character, which might put off an impatient audience. Director Upchurch has the confidence to honor McCullers’ pace, but in the second act, dramatic elements converge profoundly. Frankie’s obsession with the wedding turns into a “mania”, as Bernice calls it, to run away with her brother and his bride and live with them forever.
In response to Frankie’s stubborn pursuit of answers to “why”, Bernice tells about her marriages. In a mesmerizing patch of an altogether astonishing performance actor Roslyn Riff takes Berenice on a reverie that reveals the silent wisdom and spiritual fortitude of a woman surviving a lifetime of disappointment and loss. It’s not fair to reveal the real ages of actors playing Frankie and John Henry because their performances are so amazingly credible. Tavi Gevinson (one of the schoolgirls in Ivo van Hove’s “The Crucible” on Broadway a few seasons back) as Frankie perfectly combines precociousness with naiveté. Director Upchurch develops an incredibly compelling performance from Logan Schuyler Smith: in some ways, he’s more precocious than Frankie.
Scenic design by Laura Jellinek divides the stage starkly between the closed, kitchen world shared by Bernice, Frankie and John Henry and a large, cold open space that suggests backyard, back alley and neighboring houses. Isabella Byrd's lighting design re-enforces the inside vs. outside, where a dark seems to invade everything. Indeed, two tragic events change Bernice and Frankie’s lives, which are presaged by a shocking, racist, drunken outburst by Frankie’s father. Berenice cannot confront the wrong. She observes stoically “when people are lonesome and left out they turn so mean.” The final scene disquiets as much as one wants it to uplift. Frankie will come of age. Bernice will keep on keepin’ on.
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