Arts & Events
Editor's Note: We are always pleased when two or more of our several excellent critics—who make their own assignments—chose the same production to review . These two couldn't be more different. Oh well, à chacun son goût.
By Ken Bullock
'Member of the Wedding,' the sole stage play by novelist Carson McCullers--who Gore Vidal once called "An American legend from the beginning" while referring to her "genius for prose"--is her adaptation, at the behest of Tennessee Williams, of her own novel. A great success on Broadway in 1950, as her novels were around America, McCullers isn't read so much anymore, nor is her play often stged.
But the production of 'Member of the Wedding' (directed by Eric Fraisher Hayes at the Douglas Morrison Theatre in Hayward amply proves it's no faded hit of the past, but a play that deserves to be seen, worthy of an audience, at any time.
It tells the tale of Frankie, a kind of tomboy in a town in rural Georgia, during the last days of World War Two. (At one point, Frankie tells of reading about the Atom Bomb.) Her soldier brother is to be married--and Frankie, who's "always said" she doesn't believe in love, is strangely moved, and troubled by it. She wants to be somehow united with the happy couple, taken away from the town where she feels herself an outcast.
But 'Member of the Wedding' is also about Berenice Sadie Brown, the middle-aged black woman who's the housekeeper for Frankie and her father, Frankie's mother having died at her birth. Berenice, as director Fraisher puts it, is "the glue" that keeps the Addamses together--and is the repository of memories and reflections, not only for herself and her own hard life, but for her family, community and her employers. In perhaps the most affecting moment of the play, Berenice recounts the death of her first husband and only true love during a storm. Hers is the voice of common sense and patience that counterbalances Frankie's extravagant flights of fancy, her impulsiveness. Two outsiders; their shared words and moments--and what they can't share, both denizens of a provincial enclave at the point the world was racing towards an uncertain future
(Langston Hughes, an admirer of McCullers' stories, once wrote about visiting her: "We cursed Georgia together!")
Fraisher (artistic director at Roleplayers Theatre in Danville) directs the show with a sensitive, even hand--and he has two gems in the led roles: Katy Hidalgo, a 23 year old, native of Hayward, has great presence as the self-confessedly unhappy Frankie--and gets the humor across that lubricates her melancholy. "You're just trying to deprive me of all the pleasures of leaving town," she says to berenice at one point. But she can underscore her hopes and fears with pathos as well: when her brother and his bride tell her of their concern for her, she shoots back: "When you say We ... I'm not included!"
As Berenice, Alexaendrai Bond--who East Bay theatergoers will recall from her appearances in a number of local venues--has the sort of role that gives her the opportunity to show how integral an actor she really is. Bond runs the gamut of emotions, but subtly, as she recalls, observes, jokes, opines, watches from the sidelines, as both Frankie and her cousin, defiant, ne'er-do-well Honey--her last living relative--go through their own versions of the provincial malaise. But what's a wrenching coming-of-age for Frankie proves deadly for a young black man like Honey.
Cornell White-Cockerell as Honey, Dorian Lockett as T. T. Williams, Joe Fitzgerald as Frankie's father and Alex Skinner as her brother Jarvis, Hallie Frazer as neighbor Mrs. West and Ruby Buckwalter as her son (and Frankie's younger companion and opponent) John Henry--with Dillon Aurelio-Peralta, Samantha Cowan, Alisha Ehrlich and Bessie Aolno as more of the neighborhood kids--all do their job well as part of the ensemble, supporting the leads and the action. Ruby Buckwalter, a fifth grader, in particular has some hoops to go through as John Henry; already cross-dressed, she plays the boy's comic appropriation of Berenice's hat, shoes and handbag with humor, and is a dissonant high-pitched voice at the three-handed bridge games and discussions between Berenice and Frankie in the kitchen. Both Fitzgerald and Lockett bring strong, if fleeting, male presence to an unusually feminine play.
And the action's leisurely at first--though, paradoxically, the first two acts, in which practically nothing happens except a lot of talk, are the most absorbing in the play. Then comes the crisis, with the wedding (as everything else, viewed from the sidelines of the kitchen in Jenn Scheller's great set, one that scales a big stage down to the proportions of the characters and their simple actions, lit by Matthew O'Donnell) and all the loose ends really coming loose ...
McCullers' play is like some of Chekhov, even Beckett; not much happens, and none of it in a completely straight line. But it cuts right to the complex heart of humanity, at the cusp of the switch from simpler-seeming times to the Atomic Age. "Alienation" might be a modern word, but its meaning was always lurking in quiet places years before the word itself was ever heard there.
The show's well worth the trip to Hayward. Douglas Morrison Theatre itself is a jewel, a big playing area with just a few rows of seats wrapped partway around it. It's in carlos Bee Park, next to the Japanese Garden, which can be visited daytimes, part of the Hayward Area Recreational District, the biggest of its type in California.
With Oakland resident Susan Evans as the new artistic director, formerly with The Eastenders, Douglas Morrison Theatre promises to have more engaging shows--seasons of them!
By John A. McMullen II
Hayward’s Douglas Morrisson Theatre has chosen a very difficult and seldom-produced play in The Member of the Wedding in its “Family Portraits” season.
This is one of those character-based scripts that rely upon a deeply believable and textured performance by the title character and a directorial feel for the tone, place, and slippery subject matter.
The intended tone is the wrenching reminiscence of playwright Carson McCullers’ difficult adolescence. The place is the pressure-cooker of heat and isolation in a Georgia kitchen in August at the end of the Second World War, the month they dropped the A-bomb. The subject is a 12-year-old, unattractive, gawky, motherless, isolated child who is breaking the chrysalis of childhood and struggling with her identity, with the added confusion that she may well be attracted to both genders.
Director Eric Fraisher Hayes instead gave the 70-odd people in attendance on Saturday opening weekend a safe, sweet, domestic dramedy that could have happened in Iowa. Except they sweat in Iowa in August. In this production, hardly anyone sweats.
The Independent described the play’s 2007 London revival as, “Imagine a great Chekhov story crossed with a Tennessee Williams play….”
The tone of this production is rather different: when the play opens, the cast comes bursting onto the scene as one might expect in a musical. At the end of a couple of isolated, down-lit soliloquies, I thought they would launch into “Climb Every Mountain,” or “Goodnight My Someone.”
Katy Hidalgo, as Frankie Addams, the pre-teen in question and our antiheroine, mopes, slouches, tousles her pixie-cut, flip-flops between self-loathing and self-aggrandizement, and invests in those pre-teen annoying behaviors that make those years ‘twixt 12 and 20 so painful for all. But the performance is external, and we sense no emotional core of struggle with her hormones and the world around her. The object of the play would seem to be for the audience to connect with Frankie’s angst—as unattractive as it is—and walk in her tortured shoes for a couple of hours. This critic longed for, but, alas, felt no such connection.
Moreover, Ms. Hidalgo is—as they say down there--“cute as a June-bug,” and it is quite a stretch to believe she is twelve. No attempt is made to adapt her appearance to the character by prosthetic makeup or haircut (Frankie rues aloud that she got a summer crew-cut). She has no accent—but then most of the cast does not have one in this very Southern Gothic play.
The situation is that her soldier brother is getting married: Frankie decides that she will leave with the bride and groom on their honeymoon and become the third member of the marriage.
Her antagonist—and source of emotional support— is the “colored” housekeeper Berenice Sadie Brown. She is Frankie’s surrogate mother, and full of contradictions herself. Being a black housekeeper in Georgia was a hard row to hoe in 1945 when Jim Crow Laws were enforced by lynching (over 3,000 lynched in 50 years) and the “N-word” was accepted parlance. African-Americans were treated as children: as the character is written, it is easy to see how that influence –and being cooped up with children all day— could make one a bit of a child who might bite back when bitten.
Instead of an interesting and complex character, which would add much more compelling conflict to the play, Berenice is played by Alexaendrai Bond as an exemplar of nurturing sweetness. She expresses herself in that breathless, hopeful intonation that draws out the vowels interrupted by lots of pauses in the fashion of Maya Angelou reading a poem. A saving grace is the inclusion of her heavenly singing of a few hymns.
There are two stand-outs, both mature character roles: Mr. Addams is played by Joe Fitzgerald whose voice fills the wide, spacious house and whose Southern accent never waivers, and T. T. Williams, Berenice’s man-friend, played by Dorian Lockett whose expression lends humor and believability to the production.
The play is taken from the novel of the same name by Lula Carson Smith McCullers, born and raised in Columbus Georgia, who also wrote the well-known "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” She was a bisexual who had an on-again, off-again marriage with bisexual Reeves McCullers who committed suicide in a Paris hotel after she left him. She was a member of the cultural elite circle and close friends with Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and W. H. Auden.
The lighting capability of the DMT is superior—I counted over 100 lighting instruments. Lighting designer Matthew O’Donnell uses them well in the changing of time with the sun setting as unobtrusively as in nature, and the green sky of a thunderstorm is accurate and compelling.
Sound designer Donald Tieck composed music and used pre-set 1940’s swing to take us that place in time. His sound design of crickets and startling thunder was quite effective, but a little undone with the thunder and lightning coming at the same time, when in nature there is always a delay between them.
Scenic designer Jenn Scheller’s set is a work of art with a house, yard and beyond, and a cut-away wall to expose the kitchen where most of the action takes place. The 250-seat theatre has a high proscenium which allows for much creative latitude including a tree realistic in proportion and texture which provides an erstwhile seat for Frankie and shows her to be above and separate from the group, as if she were a wood nymph. It is idyllic, and t there is no hint of conflict or change in the design to match the interior lives of the characters and the times. Except for a couple of strands of Spanish moss high on a tree, my eye could not distinguish it from a house anywhere in the Mid-West. For such an intimate play, the kitchen may be positioned too far away from the audience. In this age of cinematic close-ups, we are not used to stretching for empathy, and closer might be better for connecting with the characters emotionally.
This is a naturalistic play rife with psychological interplay. The set is detailed in its realism, but the use of Tom Earlywine’s period-accurate props is not. Food is served, but it is just cornbread and rice; the shucked corn is “boiled” in unheated water; the milk poured out of one of those great old glass milk jugs is mimed--yet they are eating real food. A little collard greens, a simple heating coil to make the water boil, and real fresh milk would bring us into the scenes; otherwise, we have to make more allowances which interfere with our suspension of disbelief. When playing three-handed bridge, there is no dummy, it’s played like rummy, and turns are taken out of order. Little things mean a lot.
Kudos to artistic director Susan E. Evans who has been trying to move DMT’s productions from community theatre to semi-pro by undertaking more meaningful and challenging works. But if that formula is to work, the direction and talent must take the chances that the plays demand while striving for believability and consistency.
Of interest to readers may be what her contemporaries said about Ms. McCullers (1917- 1967):
"Mrs. McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility. I prefer Mrs. McCullers to Mr. Faulkner because she writes more clearly; I prefer her to D. H. Lawrence because she has no message." – Graham Greene
"[Her work is] one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture." – Gore Vidal
"Moving, yes, but a minor author. And broken by illness at such a young age." – Arthur Miller
"Carson's major theme: the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love." – Tennessee Williams.
John A. McMullen II is a member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics, and Stage Directors and Choregraphers Society. He holds an MFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon University and an MA in drama for San Francisco State. E J Dunne edits.
The Member of the Wedding,
By Carson McCullers
Directed by Eric Fraisher Hayes
At the Douglas Morrisson Theatre
22311 N. Third St., Hayward, next to the Senior Center and the Japanese Gardens.
www.dmtonline.org / (510) 881-6777.
WITH: Alexaendrai Bond as Berenice, Katy Hidalgo as Frankie, Ruby Buckwalter as John Henry, Joe Fitzgerald as Mr. Adams, Dorian Lockett as T.T., Cornell White-Cockrell as Honey, Alex Skinner as Jarvis, Alisha Ehrlich as Janice, Hallie Frazer as Mrs. West, Dillon Aurelio-Perata as Barney, Bessie Zolno as Helen, and Samantha Cowan as Doris.