By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Reviewer
They had me at the set…a perfect rendering of what I imagine a kitchen was like in 1945 in rural Georgia, complete with a refrigerator in the color and exact state of repair you would expect in homes back then, as well as the linoleum floor, the muslin (or maybe even flour sack) curtains covering the open cabinets, and recognizable old labels on cans. Kudos to props designer, Felysia Furnary. All very familiar to this southern girl. And no, I don’t want to discuss my age, but yes, I do remember many homes with similar décor, so I can attest that Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set design is brilliantly right on. I must also mention the detail of the lattice work covering the lower edges of the home, complete with weeds pushing through. Oh, dear. Memories.
But when 12-year-old Frankie Addams (Zoe Walpole) bursts onto that set like a lanky young deer, all long arms and legs and looking a little like a young Audrey Hepburn, the stage comes alive! Gradually we begin to feel her rage and her disconnect from her ‘family” of a widowed shopkeeper father (Michael Crowley) who ignores her, and Bernice (Deidra LaWan Starnes), the black housekeeper who obviously loves Frankie and is trying her best to raise her. Bernice also has daytime charge of Frankie’s 6-year-old cousin John Henry (William Carroccio and S. Gabriel Mackenna alternating in the role). Frankie apparently has for some time been suffering pubescent angst and yearnings, as well as a disconnected feeling that she belongs to no larger group than her small family, but has no words to express her unease. However, when her big brother Jarvis (Jonathan Helwig) comes home to marry his sweetheart, Janice (Caroline Dubberly), Frankie sees a way out of this hot, boring town and dreams of running away with them to Alaska to make “the we of me.”
Bernice (the housekeeper) over the course of the production reveals a powerhouse of emotions and steals our hearts and the show while doing so. We deeply feel her love, concern, and sadness from years of negotiating life in the prejudiced deep south as well as harboring unexpectedly loving recollections of her first husband. Starnes’s performance is nuanced, powerful, and totally unforgettable. And when she and Frankie interact in that kitchen and out on the scorching hot porch you are IN the l940’s of the Deep South.
Carson McCullers’ 1950 stage version of her novel written in 1946 is lovingly directed by Cara Gabriel in concert with a perfectly cast ensemble including Rebecca Ballinger (Mrs. West), Dylan Fleming (T.T. Williams), and Jonathan Del Palmer (Honey Camden Brown). The brilliant lighting designer (Jason Arnold) and sound designer (Neil McFaddan) create wonderful special effects, including an amazing storm and showcase a terrific bluesy trumpet and an annoying piano being tuned.
Can’t believe I haven’t yet mentioned the costumes by Kim Sivigny which perfectly evoke the period—the fabrics limp from the heat with the pale, nondescript colors of those years. Perfection! And the dialect coach, Jane Margulies Kalbfeld, also deserves kudos for the non-dialects and the cast’s lovely, soft southern accents. Thank you.
This production and the performances I just described seem almost effortless, soft, and evocative of a time and place very few people remember any more. It is totally worthwhile spending some time in the company of these interesting characters. I highly recommend seeing and experiencing “The Member of the Wedding”.
Performance and Ticket Information: “The Member of the Wedding” runs through June 2, 2019, and is approximately 2 hours long with one 15 minute intermission. 1st Stage is located at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA 22102. Tickets can be purchased online at www.1ststage.org or by calling the 1st Stage Box Office at 703-854-1856.