Quiet repose: Paulding in Member of the Wedding
(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Some plays age like a fine wine. Others modify shape and texture, resembling a rich cheese cultivated over many years. And still others are pulled down from their stacked shelves and carefully dusted off to reveal a story that doesn't appear to have aged much at all.
Young girls in small towns still become restless and anxious to begin their lives away from the confines of home and a sheltered society. Young men still go off to fight wars in foreign lands. And the tensions between races and cultures still rage on, though some would contend it's a silent divide with a diminishing gap. It's no wonder then how Carson McCullers's bittersweet The Member of the Wedding could still resonate with modern audiences, despite its 1946 birthdate.
McCullers's evolving script was first published as a novel, then later adapted for the stage with assistance from one of McCullers's self-described fans, Tennessee Williams. The play opened on Broadway in 1950 with Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, and Brandon de Wilde, and was subsequently filmed in 1952 with the same trio of actors, earning an Academy Award nomination for Harris.
With such a revered history, The Member of the Wedding could have easily sat alone on a shelf indefinitely, until the folks at Ford's Theatre determined it was high time for a 21st-century revival. Marshall W. Mason was tapped to helm their production, and the result is a tenderly composed piece of theatre that pays respectful homage to the author's original work.
It's "some time ago, not far away, " and twelve year-old Frankie Addams wants to escape her mundane life for an exciting new adventure with her older brother and his new bride. The young tomboy has been slighted by the neighborhood girls, and the only friends she has to count on are her black nanny Berenice and her cousin John Henry West, the little boy next door. McCullers's tale parallels Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird on many levels, with its fictitious fusion of blatant racism alongside a young girl's experiences coming of age. Frankie is a virtual Scout, and McCullers tempers her sudden loss of innocence with questions about the nature of time -- how perceptions of time can seem long and slow and then short and fast.
Nathalie Nicole Paulding takes on the daunting role first made famous by Harris, and her jealous young drama queen is still desperate for attention. It takes a while to believe that Paulding is a mere 12-years-old, but once you get past the obvious age distraction, her Frankie is a dramatic vision longing to run away from destiny. Mason's cast features excellent performances from a young Alexander L. Lange as the effeminate cousin next door, Doug Brown as Berenice's beau T.T. Williams, and just a glimpse of Jewell Robinson in a brief but memorable appearance.
The role of Berenice is shepherded by good instincts from Lynda Gravátt, who supplies the spine for McCullers's subplot. Gravátt endows Berenice with a brave heart and enough wits to fuel her zany zingers and wise words of compassion.
While the sound designed by Lindsay Jones often seems misplaced and intrusive, John Lee Beatty's detailed set proffers a tidy back yard and kitchen of a Southern home. The Addams' beautifully trimmed lawn offers a serene setting for the nuptials, while their kitchen interior is dark and oppressive. Beatty's revolving set clearly distinguishes the dualities between nature and nurture, boy and girl, black and white.
As Berenice tries to convince the twelve year-old to stay with her at home, surrounded by the familiar comforts of her quiet life, the cumbersome drone from Beatty's motorized set reminds us that there are always two sides to every story.
Just one state away from McCullers's Georgia is a stormy South Carolina, the rural setting for Tanya Barfield's family comedy, Pecan Tan. The African Continuum Theatre Company sets up Barfield's straightforward tale as a modern sitcom with a missing laugh track.
Thelma (Lynn Chavis), a self-help Oprah-phile fed up with the unsavory ways of her stagnant husband, Darrell Jerome (Randall Shepperd), is tired of kicking her husband out and then letting him sweet-talk his way back indoors. So when D.J. confesses to change after catching wind of a long-lost daughter in New York -- now twenty years old and searching for the father she never knew -- the childless couple attempts to mend their relationship with such joyful news.
In the middle of a fierce hurricane, it's up to this eccentric family to accept their new addition with open arms. But when she finally walks through the front door, Thelma and D.J. are tempted to send back the stork's late delivery. With strong material that tickles the funny bone, there is no lack of humor in Barfield's satirical script. But under Jennifer L. Nelson's mechanical direction, Pecan Tan slowly loses its flavor.
To her credit, Nelson never allows her cast to veer off into bold stereotype, maintaining Barfield's lighthearted balance of bright comedy and cool delivery. But too often Nelson's scenes seem drawn-out and rough around the edges. As always, comedy is all about meticulous timing, and when the timing is off, the audience is left with surface comedy that lacks attention to the finer details.
Only Marc R. Payne and Willette Thompson, as far-out brother Jimmy and nosy mother-in-law Mrs. Davis, ably tap into the sly rhythm of Barfield's comedy, though Thompson brokers several cheap laughs with an obvious wig. Tracie Duncan's cartoon-inspired scenic design successfully showcases the overt nature running rampant through ACTCo's production. From psychedelic colors splashed across the floor to a wildly animated kitchen, Duncan's set seems ripped from the comics section of a full-color newspaper.
Ultimately Pecan Tan offers a fun evening with no grand ulterior motive other than invoking hearty belly laughs and happy chuckles. Nelson's cast hints at the soft message of acceptance and inclusion that Barfield intends to tackle, without any heavy-handed treatment or pretentious distraction.