REVIEW: “The Member of the Wedding” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

by Barbara Waldinger

Frankie Addams, a lonely, twelve-year-old girl whose brother Jarvis and his fiancée Janice are about to get married, has decided (uninvited) to join the couple on their honeymoon and move in with them:  “I love them so much,” they are “the we of me.”  Despite the fact that Frankie has undertaken to change her name to F. Jasmine to coordinate with theirs, she will inevitably be left behind, threatening to die rather than to live on in this stiflingly small Southern town.

This is the setting of Carson McCullers’ play, The Member of the Wedding, produced by the Williamstown Theatre Festival—the only revival in a 2018 season filled with premieres.  Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch and her cast approach this 1950 classic as they would a new play:  by asking rigorous questions in rehearsal and taking nothing for granted.   Adapted by McCullers from her 1946 novel, the production ran for just over 500 performances on Broadway, starring Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and seven-year-old Brandon deWilde, all of whom reprised their roles for a 1952 film adaptation.  McCullers, who grew up in Georgia and was ill for much of her short life (she died at age 50), achieved fame for her debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was also filmed.

The Member of the Wedding is not plot-driven, but instead focuses on the time period, the place, and its three major characters.  The time is 1945:  Frankie’s brother Jarvis is a soldier serving in Alaska, while newspaper articles announce the dropping of the atom bomb.  Racial issues abound:  the American military was segregated, Jim Crow laws were in effect in the south, and there was an upsurge of lynchings.  Many of the victims were black soldiers returning from the war.

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At Williamstown, the excellent design team provides visual representation of the location and time:  the lovely set (designed by Laura Jellinek) consists of the small period kitchen and large yard of the Addams house in an unnamed town, complete with an arbor and curtains where Frankie (Tavi Gevinson), an amateur playwright, invents and performs her own plays, along with her younger cousin, John Henry West (Logan Schuyler Smith).  Clint Ramos’s splendid costumes figure prominently in the production, contextualizing it, but they also reveal character by illustrating the wild get-ups used by Frankie and John Henry in their play-acting as well as the over-the-top orange ruffled gown Frankie purchases for her brother’s wedding.  The beautifully atmospheric lighting (by Isabella Byrd) suggesting long summer days and evening shadows, is complemented by the perpetual neighborhood noises supplied by Bray Poor, whose original music includes a piano being tuned, trumpets blaring, and a haunting piano finale as the curtain falls.

The three characters whose lives and longings fill this play are Frankie, John Henry, and Berenice Sadie Brown (Roslyn Ruff), nominally the Addams’ cook but so much more. Today we would call Frankie “gender fluid,” with her masculine name and clothing (features she shares with McCullers herself), and her blond crew-cut.  One of the opening lines of the novel defines Frankie:  “She belongs to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.” So in the play.  Her one friend moved away, the girls’ club next door rejects her application to join, and now she throws herself headlong into a doomed attempt to be a member of the upcoming wedding of her brother (Tom Peckinka) to his pretty fiancée Janice (Louisa Jacobson).  The family history is bleak:  her mother died giving birth to Frankie, and her father (James Waterston), a racist who spends nearly all his time in his jewelry store, doesn’t really know or care to know his daughter.  Only Berenice understands and comforts her.   She is a true mother to both Frankie and young John Henry, whose mother (Liv Rooth) lives next door but is rarely seen.

John Henry is blithely unclear about his identity:  sporting blond curls, he loves to dress up in female clothing, play with dolls, and wishes that each child could be half boy and half girl.  Smith is adorable, as he runs, jumps and cartwheels across the stage, blowing bubbles and hiding under the kitchen table, curling up in Berenice’s arms, seeking to be loved.  Frankie, whose adolescent rebelliousness and self-destructive behavior makes her harder to love, is fully inhabited by Gevinson as she careens from one crisis to another, suffering from panic attacks, and desperately needing Berenice’s steadying hand.

Ruff’s Berenice is also lonely—having lost her beloved first husband Ludie to pneumonia, she proceeded to remarry three more times, each husband seeming to resemble “pieces of Ludie” but always “the wrong pieces.”  She hates to be alone, but isn’t in love with her boyfriend T. T. Williams (Leon Addison Brown) and spends much time and emotion worrying about her volatile foster brother, Honey Camden Brown (Will Cobbs).  Ruff gives a beautifully understated performance, never afraid to tell the children her honest opinion, sharing her feelings without regard to their youth, humming through difficult moments, and visibly trying to protect her charges from life’s blows.

The first act belongs to Frankie, as she rages against her existence in this “empty ugly house,” which can get tiresome and repetitious, despite Gevinson’s mastery of her character.  But the second act, dominated by Berenice, contains the payoff. Movingly and meticulously directed by Upchurch and flawlessly performed, this act fully justifies a revival of The Member of the Wedding.

THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING runs from August 5—19.  Tickets may be purchased online at wtfestival.org or call 413-458-3253.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING by Carson McCullers.  Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch.  Cast:  Roslyn Ruff (Berenice Sadie Brown), Tavi Gevinson (Frankie Addams), Logan Schuyler Smith (John Henry West), Tom Pecinka (Jarvis), Louisa Jacobson (Janice), James Waterston (Mr. Addams), Liv Rooth (Mrs. West), Vinie Burrows (Sis Laura), Leon Addison Brown (T. T. Williams), Will Cobbs (Honey Camden Brown), Ben Ahlers (Barney MacKean), Delilah Napier (Helen Fletcher), Sarah Haga (Doris).

Scenic Design:  Laura Jellinek; Costume Design:  Clint Ramos; Lighting Design:  Isabella Byrd; Original Music and Sound Design:  Bray Poor; Hair and Wig Design:  Leah Loukas; Dialect Coach:  Charlotte Fleck; Production Stage Manager:  Lindsey Turteltaub.

Running Time:  Two hours 30 minutes including intermission.  Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mainstage, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA., from August 5; closing August 19.

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