Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 13, 2018

REVIEW: Williamstown Theater Festival, The Member of the Wedding

Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA
through Aug. 19, 2018
by Stuart W. Gamble

Carson McCullers’ timeless, poignant drama, “The Member of the Wedding” (based on the 1946 novel) is given a fresh revival at WTF this summer. This newly mounted production deserves much praise for its sensitive performances.

Photo by Daniel Rader
Set in the American South in August, 1945 in a small town, the play unfolds leisurely like a torrid afternoon, whose blazing heat is tempered by splashes of refreshing humor as cool as a glass of ice cold lemonade. Berenice Sadie Brown (Roslyn Ruff), the African- American housekeeper of the Adams family (no, not That Adams family), spends nearly the entire play cooking in the tiny kitchen trying to quell the pressing anxiety of her charge, 12-year old Frankie (Tavi Gevinson). The youngster is an outsider constantly questioning Berenice about the inequities and injustices that surround them, in their small town and in the world. The third member of this existentially-challenged club is Frankie’s younger cousin and neighbor John Henry (Logan Schuyler Smith), whose impressionable nature contrasts beautifully with Frankie’s intellectualism.

This triad of characters provide the heart and soul of McCullers’ play in balanced and assured performances. Ruff’s portrays a strong-willed and loving maternal figure; neither too soft or too hard. Her honesty and warmth are lovingly conveyed to both Frankie and John Henry. Gevinson’s Frankie at first comes across as abrasive and almost obnoxious, but later she evolves into a gentle and thoughtful young woman, displaying both her skill as an actor and McCullers’ perceptive characterization. Finally, Smith’s John Henry is a joy to behold. A truly natural performer; this young actor demonstrates great daring and risk, especially in the scenes where he dons Frankie’s pink fairy costume. Indeed, the story touches on the contemporary issue of sexual identity, both in Frankie’s boyish behavior (and her navy crewcut hair) and John Henry’s aforementioned playfulness.

The cast is rounded out by three other central characters: Berenice’s beau T.T. Williams (Leon Addison Brown), her foster brother Honey Camden Brown (Will Cobbs), and Frankie’s alcoholic father (James Waterston). The actors depicting the men offer three faces of Pre-Civil Rights American South -- the obliging, but no less strong black man (Brown); the fed-up with racial inequality black man (Cobbs); and the inherently racist white man (Waterston). All express integrity and honesty in their portrayals of rather one-dimensional characters. Much praise must be given to Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s skill in eliciting fine performances from all the, which in lesser hands, could come across as pretentious and overly poetic.

Laura Jellinek’s set design is simple and historically accurate. The small downstage left kitchen is literally dwarfed by the towering clapboard backdrop. Metaphorically, this seems to be saying that the outside world constantly and threateningly looms over the three principal characters’ claustrophobic existence.