What's wrong with director Joanne Woodward's production of The Member of the Wedding at the Westport Country Playhouse? Because James Noone's evocative representation of a house in a small Southern town leaves only a small downstage space to indicate the outdoors area, the opening scene is congested, with Frankie and other participants in the coming wedding literally tripping over each other as they mill about. (At least. that's what happened on opening night.) What's right with this staging of the play? Everything else.
In following chum Truman Capote's advice to turn her tender and tough book into a stage piece, McCullers crafted with meticulous care what may be the best depiction of adolescent growing pains ever brought to the boards. Frankie (Liz Morton) is barely able to stand still or to keep her hands out of her recently cropped hair as she alternately taunts and plays up to family maid Berenice Sadie Brown (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), continually upbraiding the woman and seeking comfort from her while plotting to join big brother Jarvis (Brian Letscher) and his bride Janice (Dana Powers Acheson) on their honeymoon. Caught up in herself, the girl pays little attention to her young, doll-loving, hat-wearing cousin John Henry (Jack Metzger) or notices the problems that Berenice faces with her brother Honey Camden Brown (Edward O'Blenis), a disgruntled trumpeter. Indeed, Frankie -- who has decided to change her name to F. Jasmine Adams -- is too preoccupied in searching for "the we of me" to realize that she's simply living through an awkward stage.
The beauty of The Member of the Wedding is in McCullers' writing of the companionship that Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry provide for one another; they are integral to each other's lives, and their bonding and bickering confirms the unspoken friendship pact. That's where the true drama of the play resides, although there are meaningful digressions when Mr. Addams (Reed Birney) emits a racist slur and when Honey drops by with Berenice's suitor, T. T. Williams (Michael W. Howell), to deliver some news. For the most part, Berenice suppresses her woes and caters wisely to the children -- never more so than at the end of the second act, when Frankie and John Henry climb upon her lap and she sings a chorus of "His Eye is on the Sparrow." (This particular 10-minute sequence is McCullers' challenge to strong men who claim that nothing makes them cry.)
The play is all the more astonishing for McCullers' skill at capturing the nuances of Frankie's abrupt mood changes and John Henry's languid behavior during a couple of hot summer days. These two have the short-term concentration problems common to their age groups, and Berenice has the long-abiding temperament of grown-ups who associate regularly with children. This isn't to say that Berenice keeps her mouth shut when Frankie steps out in the fringed dress that she's selected for the wedding ceremony. (Costume designer Laurie Churba outdoes herself with this item and amuses with John Henry's funny-hat collection.)
Some plays are famous for the original performances, and The Member of the Wedding is one of them. Anyone taking on its three major roles is held up to the standards set by Julie Harris, whose Frankie Addams put her on the map; Ethel Waters, who took the title of her autobiography from the song that she sang as the loving, generous Berenice; and Brandon de Wilde, whose John Henry was as natural as the sunrise. But this cast comes as close to their celebrated predecessors -- all of whom also starred in the 1952 film version -- as any picky reviewer could wish. Morton has mastered a pre-teen's nervous mannerisms; her mercurial changes of mood, the way she angles her thin body and fidgets with her mop-top, all peg Frankie as pent-up in that recognizable way for which the only cure is time. Jackson, whose plumpness signals reassurance, is acerbic when necessary and calming when called for. Metzger is near-perfect as the dawdling, distracted, needy John Henry. What's wrong with these performances? Nothing other than the fact that they're not scheduled to be seen in Manhattan. Not yet, anyway.
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