- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2005

Few works capture the squiggly free fall of adolescence like Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding.” Coming-of-age stories are as common as a teen’s chewed fingernails, but in the character of 12-year-old Frankie Addams (Nathalie Nicole Paulding), Miss McCullers taps into the rich current of adolescence in all its aggravating, fitful and extreme majesty.

The drama’s deft depiction of the leafy, insular world of childhood also includes John Henry West (Alexander L. Lange), the little boy whom Frankie befriends because nobody else in the small Southern town will play with her. Their universe is the province of the outcast, populated with imaginary characters they bring to life through plays and dress-up games.

The pair’s only companion is the black maid, Berenice Sadie Brown (Lynda Gravatt), who teaches them poker and tells them tangy stories about her former husbands. Berenice expresses candid affection for the children, but, in truth, she spends time with them because she has to.

Written in 1946, “The Member of the Wedding” touches on race relations and class distinctions, but it is more a personal story about a young girl yearning to be part of a “we” rather than a lonesome “me.” The 1950 play and 1952 movie version of Miss McCullers’ novel starred an indelible Julie Harris in the role of Frankie, with equally memorable performances by Ethel Waters as Berenice and Brandon de Wilde as John Henry.

Ford’s Theatre has refocused “The Member of the Wedding” under the direction of Marshall W. Mason, known for his masterful staging of Lanford Wilson plays. Mr. Mason has chosen to emphasize the schism between the white world and the black world of 1940s America instead of centering on Frankie’s fiery envy of her brother Jarvis’ (Lee Aaron Rosen) upcoming wedding. To his younger sister, Jarvis’ happiness with Janice (Beth Hyton) signifies his taking his place in the world, a world that does not seem to want to have anything to do with Frankie.

Overemphasizing the racial subtext subverts the delicacy of the play, giving us an airless production that sacrifices the deep longing of the various characters for an atmosphere of touchiness and intolerance. The production’s loss of intimacy is felt particularly in the relationship between Frankie and Berenice.

Miss Gravatt gives a measured, warmly dignified performance that does not pander to stereotypes. In many ways, Miss Gravatt is the liveliest and most genuine presence in this curiously subdued and grave production. Miss Paulding also has her moments as Frankie, whose histrionics are both hilarious and touching. Her gleeful impetuousness makes you remember what it was like to be a teenager, ruled by quicksilver mood changes and hormones you didn’t understand.

Together, though, there is a disconnect. You are never quite convinced of their unconventional mother-daughter bond borne out of neediness and duty.

A palpable affection can be detected between the characters of Berenice and John Henry, but that relationship is not as pivotal to the play. Mr. Lange had voice-projection problems, but he is winning in his portrayal of a little boy so absorbed in life that he can trot across the stage in Berenice’s high heels and purse without a trace of self-consciousness.

John Lee Beatty’s clapboard-house set seemed to swallow lines of dialogue, especially when the actors moved toward the back of the stage. The buzz of the revolving set, however, came through loud and clear.

In a production beset by sound problems, how fitting that the most luminous scene comes at the wedding ceremony, which is performed silently through exquisitely slow movements. For a brief time, it all comes together — the happy couple oblivious to everyone but themselves, Frankie at the sidelines watching with a mixture of love and burning impatience, Berenice and the other help far apart from the guests, waiting to serve.

Perhaps “The Member of the Wedding” is better off residing in our memories of the movie and original stage production. However, the urge to find, in Frankie’s words, “the we of me” is timeless, and a staging more faithful to Miss McCullers’ text and intent might have more to say to modern audiences than Ford’s dragging, director-driven production.


WHAT: “The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, 1 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Through Feb. 27.

TICKETS: $25 to $48

PHONE: 202/347-4833

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