BWW Review: MILLER, MISSISSIPPI at Dallas Theater Center
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when seeing Miller, Mississippi at Dallas Theater Center - I knew little about the show except that it was new and had something to do with Mississippi. Boo Killebrew's nuanced gothic portrait surprised me in all the right ways.
The play opens with a ghost story, told by housekeeper Doris (Liz Mikel) to the children of the Miller family (Dylan Godwin's John, Leah Karpel's Becky, and Alex Organ's Thomas). Admittedly what I thought was going to be cliché almost had me rolling my eyes, but out of nowhere the story jumps from 0-to-60, setting itself up to be a true thriller. I'll avoid the usual light summary in order to allow you to experience Killebrew's carefully constructed home. All you really need to know is that the Miller family is more than a little bit dysfunctional, dealing with internal battles while fighting against the Civil Rights Movement in the south. We follow the family through decades, watching the children of the family grow to adulthood, circling around the toxic home built for them by the overbearing matriarch Mildred, played deftly by Sally Nystuen Vahle.
The conflicts of race, progress, tradition, and family ties grind together as the Miller children begin to take on the roles of their parents, either reacting against integration or in favor of it. Alex Organ's Thomas is the oldest son of the family, trying desperately to be the perfect "southern gentlemen" and carry on the traditions of home. He is commanding, at times sickening, and the picture of everything irritating and wrong with his archetype - and yet, Organ still finds moments where Thomas has understandable motives. Thomas has a... complicated relationship with his sister, the artistically suppressed Becky played by Leah Karpel, who writhes against her mother's demanding debutante expectations. Karpel's performance is but one of two in the evening that could be described as transformative. As the years tick by, Becky evolves from a tragic young girl, caged teenager, and eventually a hermetic artist - each phase punctuated by subtle, perfected physicality and vocal affect. My heart goes out to this Becky.
The youngest of the family, Dylan Godwin's John, acts as the voice of progress among the kids, jumping into the Civil Rights Movement even as a young teenager. Godwin's would be the second of the aforementioned transformative performances in the play. Having the farthest go, from 6 years old to 40-ish, John goes from a fidgety yet mature child to a wandering spirit, bobbing in and out of Act 2 like the voice of reason. Truly, Godwin's movement and drive steal most scenes, convincingly bouncing around the stage in childish joy at once and evoking tragedy scenes later. Liz Mikel's Doris hovers nearby, with her usual commanding presence and providing the only sane voice on stage. She is mother to all and represents the good of family that the Millers never know. Vahle's helicopter-parent Mildred reminds me far too much of women I know today, and though she is the kind of parent I detest, she buries gasp-inducing secrets beneath each glass of gin.
This orchestra of dysfunction is conducted by Director Lee Sunday Evans, who uses every bit of Brett J. Banakis's intimate living room set, Eric Southern's lighting, and Daniel Kluger's sound design to weave the most heart-pounding family drama I think I've seen on stage. For every bit the story irritates you, for every bit it frustrates you - you know deep down that it's rooted in truth. That's the worst thing about Miller, Mississippi, it's too real. With the unique staging, creative direction, and masterful performances, this is not one to miss.
Miller, Mississippi runs through October 1st at the Wyly Theatre/Studio Theatre. Check out www.DallasTheaterCenter.org for tickets and information. Images courtesy of Dallas Theater Center, Credit Karen Almond.