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BWW Reviews: MEMBER OF THE WEDDING Has Reception on Theatre Memphis' Next Stage

Following the recent triumph of the musical THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and nestled quietly in the more intimate setting of Theatre Memphis' Next Stage, Carson McCullers' touching THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING offers yet another "Addams Family." This time, however, the trio of performers who dominate the play - tomboyish "Frankie" (nee "Frances"), odd little "John Henry," and warm, nurturing "Berenice" - easily draw the audience members into the world of their kitchen and garden area. It may seem a ridiculous notion, but I couldn't help seeing a similarity between the two plays. In both plays, the main characters are removed from an outside, "normal" world; and in both plays, there are characters who wish to be seen by others as normal. Yet, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, despite its moments of humor (and there are many such moments), is full of longing and pain and frustration.

I wasn't quite sure how McCullers' work would hold up - or whether it would have the appeal it once did. The play, depicting lonely people whose need for companionship and love bind them to each other, is set in a small Mississippi town in 1945 - and was first produced at the outset of the 1950's and later turned into a first-rate film. (I have seen that film several times, and its cast - Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, and Brandon de Wilde - couldn't have possibly been better; anyone who has seen that film will have a difficult time erasing the indelible templates established by those exceptional performers.) Truth to tell, the play must have been something of a revelation when it was first produced; Americans, weaned on the likes of Mickey Rooney's "Andy Hardy," Mona Freeman, and Diana Lynn, were probably shocked by the misfit "Frankie." (The name itself is androgynous - "Frankie" sports a badly chopped haircut, dirty elbows, and trousers: She's like "Huck Finn" when he disguises himself as a girl.) However, once you pass the youth "makeovers" of the 1950's (I'm thinking not only of "Frankie," but James Dean's "Holden Caulfield"-like youth and Sal Mineo's male-obsessed "Plato" of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE), recent decades have presented teenage misfits in even more exaggerated poses. In fact, Frankie's "shock value" - she spews profanity and threatens physical violence - seems old-fashioned and tame compared with Linda Blair's head-twisting turn in THE EXORCIST.

The good news is that the play does indeed hold up. After all, loneliness and the sense of being "out of sync" are universal; and the characters here are particularly well drawn and performed. As simple as the premise is - Frankie wants to join her brother "Jarvis" and his bride-to-be "Janice" (the "Ja-" characters represent the "perfect" world Frankie seeks to inhabit) as they set forth on their new life together - there are many underlying themes that deal with identity, nonconformity, sexuality, and race. The main character, Frankie, is obviously at odds with the young girls in the town, and she looks foolish when she tries to feminize herself for the wedding; "John Henry," with his owlish glasses and otherworldly persona (he reminds me of "Dill" in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD), plays with dolls and loves to wear Berenice's heels and Frankie's costume dresses; and Berenice describes a man who lived as a woman. Frankie's frustration, tendency toward violence, and need for change find a parallel in the character of the black trumpet player "Honey," the only relative Berenice treasures. While Frankie's dilemma is personal and confined, Honey's is broader and replete with social overtones. (We see a well-acted glimpse of racism early in the play when John Henry's mother reminds Berenice of her "place" - it's a subtle exchange politely and icily delivered by two fine players.)

A couple of important images and motifs reinforce the complexity of the play. The way these characters see themselves and each other are abetted by a series of references to eyes - Frankie's are gray and, according to Berenice, full of jealousy; John Henry wears glasses he doesn't need; Berenice has a glass eye that she finds uncomfortable. Moreover, despite its humor, the specter of death hovers around the kitchen and grape arbor: Knives are flashed, money is collected for the burial of a character who has suddenly died, Frankie's mother died during childbirth, a man has had his throat cut in an alley - and the death of Frankie's childhood is imminent.

A few serious discussions are masked within the exaggerated characters and humor of the play. At one point, Frankie and Berenice speak of moments as they pass - the past becoming the present, and the present just as quickly becoming the past. By the end of the play, the "moment" these characters have had during this last summer will come to an end: Frankie, now well on her way to "conformity," doesn't really realize the special summer she has so desperately tried to escape; perhaps she will in the future. Though focused now on her worship of a pasty girl whose piano practices she formerly abhorred, and though dressed in a more "normal" mode of fashion, she is, sadly, a less "interesting" character than the tumble-about, flailing adolescent we have become accustomed to seeing. Director Irene Crist allows the light to linger, then fade, on a bereft "Berenice" as the play comes to its conclusion. It's a nice touch.

Ms. Crist has done a fine job with this show. Even before it opens, you know that a lot of love has gone into this production. Spirituals, Big Band numbers, blues - all can be heard by artists ranging from Billie Holiday to Bing Crosby. The set, designed by Jack Yates, is lovingly evocative of the time and characters - oval mirror, kitchen table, old refrigerator and sink in the kitchen; rattan chairs, grape arbor, stump in the garden. I also greatly enjoyed the performers: Lanky Lauren Ledger has worked hard on her Mississippi accent and hits those up and down emotional moments with the skill of a seasoned performer; Judi Bray's "Berenice" (a part she also undertook some seventeen years ago) is loving and warm, yet a woman whose life has been full; and Holden Guibao is an amazing little "John Henry" (I was astonished at the performance Ms. Crist has elicited from him). The entire supporting cast is expert, with a special nod to Delvyn Brown's pomaded, pained, angry "Honey." Through October 5.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)