Monday, August 13, 2018

The Member of the Wedding: How Not to Stage an American Classic

Roslyn Ruff and Tavi Gevinson in The Member of the Wedding. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

There isn’t an iota of poetry in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of The Member of the Wedding. Carson McCullers’s adaptation of her own 1946 coming-of-age novel was produced on Broadway in 1950 and filmed – unforgettably – by Fred Zinnemann two years later with the original stars: the great actress and jazz singer Ethel Waters, the child actor Brandon de Wilde, and in the role of the protagonist, twelve-year-old Frankie Addams, the phenomenal twenty-six-year-old Julie Harris. Except for A Streetcar Named Desire, this is, I believe, the most lyrical play ever written by an American. Frankie, lonesome, motherless, desperate for connection, latches onto the idea of going off with her brother and his fiancée after their imminent wedding because she has no group to belong to and decides that “they are the ‘we’ of me.” The speech in which she conveys this notion – to her little cousin and next-door neighbor John Henry, who, of course, has no idea what she’s talking about – is the first-act curtain, and it’s utterly remarkable. The language shimmers; the revelation it frames, fantastic as it is, is pellucid and profound. At several points in the play Frankie – though she is trembling on the razor’s edge of adolescence, pulled as much backwards as forwards – offers perceptions that are both touchingly and terrifyingly mature for a girl of twelve and that, more astonishingly, she articulates with the clarity of a poet. She’s like the little girl in Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” who stumbles into an adult vision of the improbable co-existence of disparate segments of humanity. She’s also a portrait of the writer as a young woman.

But in Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s hopelessly flat-footed revival at Williamstown, Tavi Gevinson, cast as Frankie, has no feeling for McCullers’s exquisite poetic prose, and there’s so much of it that the poor actress (who has shown talent on other occasions) is swimming in it. Her line readings are insistent and she tries to motivate them, but they’re monochromatic. There’s no evidence in this Member of the Wedding that Frankie is freakishly aware of truths that the vast majority of people around her don’t discover until they’re twice or three times her age and even then – as the black housekeeper Berenice Sadie Brown (Roslyn Ruff), who watches over her and John Henry (Logan Schuyler Smith) during the dog days of summer in their tiny Southern town, admits – they don’t have the means to give them voice. Frankie’s dialogue, with its leaping rhythms and unexpected turns of phrase – “as the irony of fate would have it,” “Well, I feel exactly as if someone had peeled all the skin off me,” “If you would eat these old cards, they would taste like a combination of all the dinners of this summer together with a sweaty-handed nasty taste” – is the key element that makes The Member of the Wedding, like Streetcar, a piece of poetic realism. Upchurch has somehow misread the style, so she directs the play as if it were the most banal, clumsy example of kitchen-sink naturalism. Laura Jellinek’s set is divided between the kitchen of the Addams house (stage left) and the yard, which is thrown into relief by gray clapboard housing that dominates the space; the result feels like infinite drabness. (You also wonder, incidentally, who the hell lives in that neighboring house that seems to take up easily two normal-sized lots.) Whenever Upchurch has more than three actors on the stage at the same time, she compresses them into a straight line or can’t figure out how to move them without having them block each other. The scenes lack shape, its tempo thrown off every time the show stops dead for actions that have no apparent significance – as when Berenice and the two children turn upstage at the sink while she (supposedly, but unconvincingly) inserts her glass eye, or when she lights and puffs on a cigarette.

Roslyn Ruff as Berenice. (Photo: Carolyn Brown)

The key relationship in the play is between Frankie and Berenice, the housekeeper who stands in, as best she can, for the girl’s dead mother. (Her father is too distracted by his business and too bewildered by his daughter’s strangeness to be of much help in raising her.) As McCullers wrote it, it’s a fascinating and complex one. Berenice – warm, wise, a devout Christian with a sassy, sensual side – loves Frankie and employs a combination of tenderness, humor and good sense to deal with her blue moods and her outbursts of bravado and downright bad temper. But, though Frankie’s insights sometimes amaze her, at this point in Frankie’s life Berenice is no longer the ideal adult to guide her because she doesn’t always understand what she’s on about. (This is the moment when, in the absence of a mother who might get on her wavelength, she needs a sensitive intellectual – a great teacher, perhaps – who both gets her and can challenge her.) Except for a few scattered moments of humor, I got exactly none of those qualities from Rosalyn Ruff’s performance. Most of the time, when Frankie is exploding in front of her, the only response Ruff allows Berenice is irritation, as if all the girl ever does is drive her to the end of her patience. Act two – in this production, the first half of act two, since the second and third acts are mushed together – ends with Frankie’s projection of the exciting, famous life she envisions sharing with her brother and the bride; when she’s obviously overwrought, Berenice reaches out and pulls Frankie into her strong arms and calms her down with a chorus of the spiritual “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” In this version, she looks so pissed at Frankie, spinning around the table, that the intimacy between them and the beauty of the gospel song seem to come from some other play.

No one in the cast comes off very well except for Leon Addison Brown as Berenice’s suitor, the pillar of the black community T.T. Williams. Louisa Jacobson and Tom Pecinka are passable as Janice and Jarvis, the newlyweds-to-be. But Upchurch appears to have directed Logan Schuyler Smith to wander around the stage at will; it’s not the kid’s fault, but he seems to be engaged in exercises in a junior acting class, not portraying John Henry. As Berenice’s troubled, rebellious half-brother, the horn player Honey, whom McCullers wrote as a sort of alter ego for Frankie, Will Cobbs misses every opportunity; he plays a historic situation – a young black man caged in a white world – rather than a character. The way James Waterston approaches Mr. Addams, I didn’t believe a single thing McCullers wants us to understand about him – that he tries to be kind to Frankie but doesn’t know what to do with her, or that his treatment of Honey is explainable by his upbringing as a white man in the South and not by willful viciousness. I didn’t even buy that he spends his days in a jewelry store. Liv Rooth plays John Henry’s mother, Frankie’s Aunt Pet, as a caricature of a self-involved middle-class white woman. I realize that The Member of the Wedding is a tricky play to pull off, but there’s no indication in this production that the director understands the first thing about it.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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