There’s something interesting taking place at the Beck Center for the Arts, but it is not what's on stage during “The Member of the Wedding.”
Throughout Carson McCullers’ play, we are told of the interesting people living interesting lives elsewhere and in the past. Off-stage, a marriage takes place, someone gets into trouble with the law, and two people die. We hear the sound of children and musicians playing in the distance.
But on stage, not much happens and quite frankly, under Eric Schmiedl’s direction, very little of it is any good.
Like “The Glass Menagerie” – whose creator, Tennessee Williams, encouraged McCullers to adapt her 1946 novel for the stage, where it ran on Broadway from 1950 to 1951 – this is a memory play that takes place in a single room in a single home in the not so distant past. And like that classic work, most of the ample dialogue and much of the staging are devoted exclusively to defining the play’s complex characters and to create the weight of a singular mood that defines their unfortunate circumstances.
In “The Member of the Wedding,” the mood is oppression.
The main character is a bright, angst-ridden, motherless 12-year-old white girl named Frankie (Ellie Ritterbusch), who wants more than anything to be anyone else, anywhere else, and whose emotionally distant father (Fred Gloor) tells her to never leave the yard at each of their infrequent encounters.
Frankie spends most of the play in the kitchen abusing her young cousin John Henry (Chase Oberhaus), who lives next door, complaining to the middle-aged black housekeeper Berenice (Lisa Louise Langford), and planning her escape. At the time the play takes place, Frankie’s best option is to leave with the newlywed couple – her brother Jarvis (David C. Dolansky) and his fiancé Janice (Madelyn Voltz) – whose romance and connectedness are the things Frankie desires, noting that “they are the we of me.” But as McCullers writes in her novel, Frankie is “an unjoined person who hangs around in doorways,” and so nothing actually comes of this. Or much of anything else in this contemplative play.
Everyone in “The Member of the Wedding,” which takes place somewhere in the south, seems to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time and unable to do anything about it. “We all of us somehow caught,” Berenice says. “We born this way or that way and we don’t know why…. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us caught somehow all by ourself.”
This sense of oppression is reinforced by a kitchen radio that never offers any kind of sustained listening pleasure, a piano tuner next door who never completes all the notes on a scale, and a trumpeter named Honey Camden Brown (Corin B. Self), a self-destructive cousin of Berenice’s, whose mournful playing is heard in the distance but then stops. Abruptly.
This is a small, intriguing and fragile play. In a New Yorker article written about the playwright, a letter she wrote to her husband references “The Member of the Wedding” and calls it “one of those works that the least slip can ruin. It must be beautifully done. For like a poem there is not much excuse for it otherwise.”
Case in point is this Beck Center production, for it is a ruined work.
While all the designers – Walter Boswell (scenic), Adam Ditzel (lights), Suwatana Pla Rockland (costume) and Angie Hayes (sound) – nicely establish a sense of time and place in the intimate Studio Theatre, the delivery of the play’s romanticized dialogue by most of the cast is woefully artificial, astoundingly flat and one-dimensional and, consequently, ineffective.
An exception is Langford as Berenice Sadie Brown. Every line is richly drawn and perfectly paced. Every monologue is a pleasure to listen to, particularly when she talks about her late husband and how all the men she’d been drawn to since his death had “little pieces of Ludie.... It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces.”
Kelly Strand as John Henry’s mother, whose very few lines during very few scenes are perfectly nuanced, adds some authenticity to this production. The same can be said for Voltz as Janice. But Langford’s performance is the reason to see this play. Otherwise, as the playwright notes, “there is not much excuse for it.”