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Let’s allow that what Marshall W. Mason is trying to do with The Member of the Wedding at Ford’s Theatre is ambitious. He acknowledges in a program note that the adolescent girl’s coming-of-age story that enchanted Broadway audiences in 1950 is no longer of the first freshness, that a reinvention is thus called for. He points out that “longing to belong” is hardly the exclusive province of tomboyish Frankie, and that the play’s African-American characters no doubt experience the same yearning. And he declares his intention to free the play from its realistic bonds so that he can explore a broader application of its themes. All admirable, intelligently thought through, and as I said, ambitious.
Now if only Carson McCullers were around to help the director out by rejiggering her script a bit. She wouldn’t have to do much—just provide a line or two of support, an echo, say, of something Frankie shouts that could resonate differently when whispered by black maid Berenice or her hotheaded trumpet-playing sibling Honey. But Mason has been clever about underlining what is there to be underlined. When Frankie’s father—mostly an Atticus Finch–ian figure, calm and resolute—gets annoyed and utters the word “nigger” three times in the space of 30 seconds, the very air seems to have whooshed out of the auditorium, so still does the stage become. And when Lynda Gravátt’s Berenice considers a kitchen knife in any hands but her own—especially white hands—a weapon, a point is wordlessly made about the fragility of social relations. There’s significance, too, in giving Gravátt the final bow at the curtain call, when Nathalie Nicole Paulding’s Frankie must have three times as many lines.
The problem with Mason’s reconception is that the play keeps undercutting it. Fifty-five years ago, Brooks Atkinson opined in the New York Times that if drama were nothing but character sketches and acting, “The Member of the Wedding would be a masterpiece.” He said this in a review that cited the “extraordinary performance” of Julie Harris as Frankie and the “mountainous personality” and “exalted spirit” of Ethel Waters as Berenice. But he did not refer even once to the subsidiary black characters, or to the fact that one of them dies in a racial incident toward the end of the evening (which could be said to give at least the illusion of the dramatic momentum that Atkinson found lacking). That’s because the play is Frankie’s, pretty much from start to finish. Her fierce hunger for companionship and for something to join—the title refers to her determination to tag along with her brother and his bride on their honeymoon—is all the audience is really being asked to care about. Berenice is there strictly in support. With her open arms and common-sensical dignity, she’s the sort of person you’d want to have in your corner, but she’s not the center of the play, or even its conscience, so much as she is its anchor.
She is, happily for this production, a pretty good fit for Gravátt, who has a natural down-to-earthiness and a firm way of having done with a line once she’s delivered it. She isn’t the Rock of Gibraltar that Waters was in the film version, but she’s a plausibly strong figure for 12-year-old Frankie and her younger cousin, John Henry, to look up to. Paulding is persuasively urchinlike, but she has to work a little too hard to project Frankie’s irrepressibility to the back row of a house as big as Ford’s. She’s fine when she’s being pig-headed, throwing tantrums, and yelling, but she’s less persuasive in quieter moments—which allows little Alexander L. Lange to pretty much walk off with them as John Henry. Take your eyes off of him for a moment and he’ll wander into a corner, don Berenice’s hat and high heels, or maybe a Roman helmet from Frankie’s dress-up box, and come back looking like a refugee from a Daffy Duck cartoon. Adorable. James J. Johnson’s Honey looks ready to explode even when in repose, and Doug Brown’s mellifluous voice is aptly in synch with his purpose as a calming best buddy.
The play, though, ends up telling us the things it always has—things we could recite right along with it—about childhood and racism and the joy and pain of growing up. And now that coming-of-age stories are a genre unto themselves in Hollywood, there’s a lot less fascination in seeing this one brought to studiedly realistic life on stage than there must have been back in 1950. With budget apparently no object (a line in the program says “Ford’s Theatre stages built by The Home Depot”), designer John Lee Beatty has built a perfectly real-looking house with a working kitchen inside and gleaming white siding and an arbor outside. (A rumbling turntable sends it spinning impressively at the end of each scene.) But somehow, the play’s progress feels labored, even as you’re admiring the production’s craft.CP