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THEATRE REVIEW: ‘The Member of the Wedding’ at WTF compelling, disquieting, uplifting, timeless

In a quietly elegant revival at Williamstown Theatre Festival, director Gaye Taylor Upchurch and a phenomenal leading cast reveal how deep in its recesses the timelessness of the 1950 drama lies. 

The Member of the Wedding
By Carson McCullers
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch

Describing how her third husband could never measure up to her first, “He didn’t make me shiver,” says Berenice, a middle-aged Black housekeeper, to her charge, Frankie Addams, a tomboyish, 12-year-old white girl. The conversation might seem extraordinary given the age difference, especially in an ordinary household in an ordinary town in the American South in 1945. But Southern author Carson McCullers knew all too well that Jim Crow society allowed only rare spaces for any open talk between races. McCullers peered down into that space in “The Member of the Wedding.” Now, in a quietly elegant revival at Williamstown Theatre Festival, director Gaye Taylor Upchurch and a phenomenal leading cast reveal how deep in its recesses the timelessness of the 1950 drama lies.

Berenice’s private domain, the dramatic venue for “The Member of the Wedding,” is the kitchen of the Addams’ household. Joining Berenice and Frankie daily, there is Frankie’s much younger cousin, John Henry. The three are social misfits—Berenice as a Black woman has two strikes against her in the white men’s world outside the kitchen. Alone after four husbands—lonely, too—she worries about her only relative: half-brother Harry, whom trouble besets, especially when he’s been in that “no-good reefer.” Frankie’s a loner, too: Her mother died in childhood. She can’t keep friends her own age and lords over younger kids like John Henry, commanding them in costume pageants in the backyard. John Henry’s an odd little boy. He’s fond of Frankie’s old dolls, dons pretty costumes from Frankie’s plays and admits to witnessing a coupling of two men in the back alley. (He doesn’t know what it was but it “wasn’t kissing.”) Berenice’s surrogate motherhood of Frankie suits her father just fine. He’s less distant to the liquor bottle on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard than he is from preteen daughter Frankie.

Roslyn Ruff as Berenice and Tavi Gevinson as Frankie in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of ‘The Member of the Wedding.’ Photo: Carolyn Brown

Dark creeps around outside the kitchen even in the summer light of the afternoon when Frankie’s’ much older brother comes home from Army duty with a beautiful fiancée to announce their wedding the weekend hence. Frankie becomes obsessed with the wedding. Berenice, with immediate clarity and honesty, proclaims, “You’re jealous.”

McCullers doesn’t muster much obvious conflict in the first act, steadily but slowly lying down character exposition, which might put off an impatient audience. Director Upchurch has the confidence to honor McCullers’ pace but, in the second act, dramatic elements converge profoundly. Frankie’s obsession with the wedding turns into a “mania,” as Berenice calls it, to run away with her brother and his bride and live with them forever.

Roslyn Ruff as Berenice in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of ‘The Member of the Wedding.’ Photo: Carolyn Brown

In response to Frankie’s stubborn pursuit of answers to “why,” Berenice tells about her marriages. In a mesmerizing patch of an altogether astonishing performance, actor Roslyn Ruff takes Berenice on a reverie that reveals the deep faith, silent wisdom and spiritual forebearance of women surviving a lifetime of disappopintment and hardship. It’s not fair to reveal the real ages of actors playing Frankie and John Henry because their performances are so amazingly credible. Tavi Gevinson (one of the schoolgirls in Ivo van Hove’s “The Crucible” on Broadway) as Frankie perfectly combines precociousness with naiveté. Director Upchurch develops an incredibly compelling performance from Logan Schuyler Smith: In some ways, he’s more precocious than Frankie.

Scenic design by Laura Jellinek divides the stage starkly between the close, kitchen world shared by Berenice, Frankie and John Henry and a large, cold, open space that suggests backyard, back alley and neighboring houses. Lighting design re-enforces the inside vs. outside, where a dark seems to invade everything. Indeed, two tragic events change Berenice and Frankie’s world, which are presaged by a shocking, racist, drunken outburst by Frankie’s father. Berenice cannot confront the wrong. She observes stoically, “When people are lonesome and left out, they turn so mean.” The final scene both disquiets and uplifts. Frankie will come of age.  Berenice will keep on keeping’ on.

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The Member of the Wedding plays on the main stage at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Aug. 19. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to wtfestival.org or call the box office at (413) 458-3253.

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