"The Member of the Wedding"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
“The Member of the Wedding,” now on the boards at the Westport Country Playhouse, is, one feels, an accurate slice of life in the Old South. We have here the southern eccentrics that one has come to expect of such writers as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Tennessse Williams and others. We have the slow-moving, sultry dog days of the deep South. We have the stifling relationships, the yearnings, the loneliness, the inevitable boredom of the small town. And we have the ongoing, sometimes brutal, racism.
But how well does all this work on stage? In this case, Carson McCullers’ “Wedding,” it does work and it doesn’t work. McCullers’ deep understanding of her characters, with all their complexities, comes across beautifully—as do their intricate, involved relationships. But McCullers’ style is better suited to the printed page than to the stage—in short, this touching story is better read than viewed. On stage, “The Member of the Wedding,” seems to go on interminably, with no forward motion. Even though startling changes occur at the close, it takes forever to reach that point. Emphasis is on character and mood, but not on drama.
Unfortunately, the set design does little to enhance the mood. James Noone’s set with its open wooden framing that suggests the indoors and outdoors is clever, but not to the point. What comes across is muddle rather than a strong statement. One longs for solid—instead of walk-through—walls.
Nevertheless, director Joanne Woodward does yeoman work with the play, having cast the show carefully. And one should probably blame the material, not the staging, for its dragging pace.
As to the story: twelve-year-old Frankie Adams longs for a more exciting, broader world. Awkward and tomboyish, she is rejected by her peers, and must rely for companionship on the little boy next door, John Henry, and Berenice, the black housekeeper who raised her. When her soldier brother returns home for his wedding, she fantasizes that she will join the honeymoon couple and flee the town.
Liz Morton, as Frankie, is most appealing. Never mind that she is an adult actress who tends to hump over to compensate for height—or that her voice, pitched high for the role, never loses its monotonous whine. Despite these drawbacks, Morton dominates the stage, carries the story, and somehow gets it just right. As to the others: Jack Metzger (a tiny sprite wearing oversized eyeglasses) is an adorable John Henry, but has yet to learn the acting skills of projection and articulation. In the third major role—LaTanya Richardson Jackson gives a competent performance as Berenice, Frankie’s care-giver. But one longs for a little more pizzazz, more warmth, in her style. (It’s difficult not to remember Ethel Waters in the role.) As to supporting players, able performances are forthcoming from Reed Birney, Edward O’Blenis, and Michael W. Howell.
All told, one puzzles over the choices of shows for this summer season at the Westport Country Playhouse. All three selections so far—“Finian’s Rainbow,” “Dear Brutus,” and now “The Member of the Wedding”--can be justified as historically important pieces, in terms of theater history. But as to rousing entertainment, they fall short of the mark.
-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 1, 2005