The Member of The Wedding, by Carson McCullers. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
A tragic look at a young girl's life at a hard time in her youth, when maturity depends on support and support comes from the strange places in your life: home, servants, other children, and death. Frankie Addams at twelve is difficult for the sake of being difficult at times, contrary for the effect it produces, and is aided and abetted by her very young cousin John Henry who thinks keeping adults on their toes is the key to life.
Logan Schuyler Smith, Roslyn Ruff, Tavi Gevinson; photo: Carolyn Brown
"You're jealous. . .go and share yourself in the mirror."
Tavi Gevinson as Frankie Adams; photo: Carolyn Brown
The play is set in McCullers' childhood home in Georgia. In the new production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival the box representing the Addams' kitchen is shoved over to stage left while a much larger, less specific wooden box encloses both it and the Addams' yard and garden, such as it is, dominated by a mostly off-stage grape arbor. The kitchen set, representing a 1930s design, and the surrounding area - it looks like the exterior rear wall of a factory actually - leaves much of the audience wondering what's behind door number two, and door number three for that matter. Behind #2 is the icebox and behind #3 is the rest of the house.
Now this is a good old-fashioned play, flawed but fine. Among its flaws is the fact that most important scenes are played off-stage out-of-sight. While all, or just about all, of Frankie's moments are big moments, the biggest take place in a car we can't see, in the city streets we can't see, in the house during her brother's wedding which we don't see. We hear bits of what is happening, but we are kept away from these things purposely by the author. McCullers seems to have wanted her audience to imagine what happens, to hear the story, or the shouts, and to imagine, think and create for ourselves, what is going on in Frankie's life. It may have worked well in 1950, but it does less well now in 2018.
Frankie is played by the actress Tavi Gevinson, a 22 year old media star, a writer, blogger, publisher and actress who is rapidly becoming a popular star in her own right. In the role of Frankie ("call me F. Jasmine") she follows in the dynamic footsteps of Julie Harris who became a star with this role which she also repeated in the film version along with Ethel Waters and Brandon deWilde. Those are mighty big footprints to fill, figuratively and not literally. The biggest difference between the two actresses is vocal placement. While I found Frankie's plight, pre-puberty, just as invested as ever, Gevinson's vocal production was so often strident, harsh and masculine in tone that it left me awkwardly disinterested in what she had to say. I doubt that there is much to be done about that at this point. That's a shame. For at her best Gevinson is devastating. It's just that her best is scattered across the two and a quarter hours and those moments are difficult for this actress to connect. The work here is like a connect-the-dots puzzle: you cannot skip around, you have to follow the line until you complete the drawing. In Gevinson's performance there are gaps where the lines just don't match up.
As her cousin John Henry we have a different problem. Logan Schuyler Smith is terrific playing a little kid because, in part, he is a little kid. His energy is staggering but when he becomes ill, and that fact does play into the pathos of the play, he is ignored. In part this is tragic because of what follows, but for the play itself it is tragic that the actor does not get around to expressing his personal anxiety in a way that should garner proper attention even though it doesn't. We should have the privilege of seeing that something is wrong, but as the scenes of self-awareness are played here even we cannot become involved in the boy's need.
Other actors in the company turn in wonderful work. James Waterston is perfect as Frankie's father and Tom Pecinka does an admirable job as the big brother whose wedding sparks the title of the play. His bride is played sympathetically by Louisa Jacobson. The remarkable Vinie Burrows has a bit part as Sis Laura, the vegetable woman and she is delicious indeed. Leon Addison Brown is excellent as T.T. Williams and Will Cobbs gives Honey Camden Brown a proper performance in all his moments, especially his confrontation with Mr. Addams whose southern bigotry is suddenly spouted in their encounter.
Roslyn Ruff as Berenice Sadie Brown; photo: Carolyn Brown
Honey's sister Berenice Sadie Brown is wonderfully played by Roslyn Ruff. She is a gorgeous actress who brings honesty to the role and makes it very appealing. She makes the part very much her own, but there is a strange lack of warmth in her relationship with Frankie. The girl frustrates the woman but the woman understands the girl. When she offers solace to Frankie it is with all the right moves and gestures, but her voice and her body seem to lack full connection and, after all, the play really revolves around what this woman can bring to the awkward child she watches over.
Gaye Taylor Upchurch who has directed this play has moved people through the sequences with appropriate shifts of energy and enthusiasm but she has missed some of the most relevant options in this play. She has never brought us to that special place where "servant" becomes mother and where pre-teen becomes an infant. The poses are there, but not the realizations - a miscommunication perhaps between director and actresses. Mr. Addams confrontational moment with Honey is truly dynamic and well pictured and is probably Upchurch's finest piece of the play, but it isn't what the play is about. The play belongs to Berenice and that is where the play goes wrong on the Williamstown stage. It has been handed over to Frankie.
Berenice is also a member of the wedding, the creator of the feast, the preparer of the space, the arbiter of the children's decisions - a fight she loses - the friend of the family who makes things go well when she can do it. Even with so much focus on Frankie, which is unavoidable for here McCullers has written an idealized version of herself, it is Berenice's play at the end of the day. She starts the play; she ends the play; her decisions, right or wrong, drive the play.
There aren't many opportunities to see McCullers work on the stage and they are never to be missed. This one is fascinating, especially once it gets going for real with Jarvis' departure for his army base. If the final work isn't completely satisfying there is this at least: Carson McCullers was, herself, never completely satisfied and she died at age 50 with a lot of unresolved issues left untouched. While Frankie Addams may well suffer the same fate, Berenice has at least had a story that ends with a bang.
The Member of the Wedding plays on the main stage at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through August 19. For information and tickets go to wtfestival.org or call the box office at 413-458-3253.