Lynda Gravátt in The Member of the Wedding(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Lynda Gravátt in The Member of the Wedding
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
The most exciting thing about the opening night performance of Ford's Theatre's dramatically inert production of The Member of the Wedding was the presence of Broadway royalty in the person of five-time Tony Award winner Julie Harris. Harris starred in the original Broadway production of the Carson McCullers drama back in 1950, achieving her first significant acclaim in the role of 12-year old Frankie, a lonely girl who longs to find a way out of her emotional isolation.

Before the show began, the theater's producing director, Paul R. Tetrault, took to the stage and introduced Harris as "America's greatest living stage actress." Seated in the front row, Harris stood, turned to face the audience, and acknowledged the warm standing ovation she received from the collection of administration officials, Capitol Hill figures, theater insiders, and critics on hand for the occasion, though she did not speak.

Half a century after its premiere, The Member of the Wedding is a fondly remembered but little-seen play. Perhaps it was Harris's performance and that of co-star Ethel Waters that made it seem special, or maybe it's just the golden glow of memory burnishing the reputation of this play that caused our expectations to run high, but the Ford's Theatre presentation lacks emotional resonance. The best moments belong to Lynda Gravátt in the role that Waters originated: Berenice, a world-weary maid who struggles against cynicism while tending to headstrong Frankie in Georgia during the World War II years.

McCullers was famously persuaded by Tennessee Williams to turn her novella, drenched in Southern gothic atmosphere, into a play. It was a critical and commercial hit -- but the novella and the play have a thin dramatic thread, relying on the exploration of Frankie's feelings of disconnection, which turn to obsession when she fantasizes the upcoming marriage of an older brother as a pivotal event in her own life. Much of what transpires is simple, meandering conversation, and director Marshall W. Mason does not seem to have found a way to draw the talks together so that they seem to be heading anywhere. In an intermissionless, one-hour-and-45-minute play, this soon grows tiresome; the audience obviously became restless about halfway through.

The novella's thoughtful, poignant texture is not successfully transferred to the stage in this production; there's little in the way of atmosphere to suggest the Deep South, the heat of summer, or the feelings experienced by Frankie and the African-Americans around her. Frankie's mother is dead and her father is a remote figure; her closest companions are a six-year old cousin and Berenice, a maternal figure whos has been somewhat battered by life but who's still proud and practical. Frankie's impulsive nature plays against the calm reserve of Berenice, who's emotionally poised between the white world of her employer and the black world of her family and friends, a balancing act that takes a quiet but relentless toll on her. Frankie fixates on her soldier brother's upcoming nuptials, deciding that she will leave with him and his new wife. It's a chance to escape her confining, small town world and to gain a sense of belonging by joining a new family unit -- to become part of a "we," as she puts it.

Whether due to the director's design or just because of Gravátt's quietly compelling performance, the play in this production seems to be Berenice's story more than Frankie's. As the girl becomes increasingly histrionic, Berenice grows calmer and we begin to learn something about her history, both its happy times and woes. The effect of overt racism on the men in her life is a trial that she endures uneasily; Gravátt allows just enough sorrow to wash over her face to clue the audience that there is much going on beneath her placid exterior. Berenice's treatment of Frankie and the way that she deals with sorrow makes her journey much more interesting than that of the child.

Alexander L. Lange, Nathalie Nicole Paulding, and Lynda Gravátt in The Member of the Wedding(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Alexander L. Lange, Nathalie Nicole Paulding, and Lynda Gravátt in
The Member of the Wedding
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Frankie is played by Nathalie Nicole Paulding. Though slender, she appears much closer to 22 than 12, and a short haircut that's meant to emphasize the character's tomboyishness backfires; it looks stylish and trendy. Mason has Paulding spill out Frankie's dialogue in a non-stop, high-pitched, slightly metallic voice that creates a hard veneer and further diminishes the sense that here is a child seeking to grow up. The supporting cast is generally successful -- particularly James J. Johnson, smoldering with resentment and displaying a feral energy as the doomed Honey Camden Brown, a member of Berenice's family who has not adjusted himself to white domination. Young Alexander L. Lange is also creditable as John Henry West, Frankie's little cousin and confidante.

John Lee Beatty's scenic design puts a house interior and exterior on a giant turntable, allowing rapid transitions. Mason moves his actors about so as to capitalize on the revolving set's movement, creating an interesting three-dimensional effect as conversations are taken from one place to another. The interior is obviously Berenice's domain, dark and realistically appointed. Outside, all is bright and flatly lit; this is the world inhabited by the white adults and children.

These themes have been frequently explored over the past 54 years, and maybe that's why The Member of the Wedding seems to have lost its unique sensibility. Perhaps it would work better if staged in a more intimate venue, where the actors needn't risk losing the subtlety that the piece requires because of the need to project their unamplified voices and the characters' shadings of personality to the far reaches of the theater. But, as it is, this Wedding is no blessed event.