It was nearly 70 years ago that Carson McCullers adapted her beloved 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding into a prizewinning Broadway play. Set in a small Southern town, the story centers on two indelible characters: Frankie, a white preteen tomboy, and Berenice, the African American housekeeper hired by Frankie’s widowed father to take care of her.
Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published 14 years later, is set similarly in a small Southern town where a white tomboy named Scout is cared for by an African American housekeeper named Calpurnia hired by Scout’s widowed father, Atticus Finch.
With To Kill a Mockingbird now a smash hit on Broadway in Aaron Sorkin’s controversial adaptation, the warmhearted production at 1st Stage of its literary precursor takes on a sheen of timely theatrical interest. And that anticipation is amply rewarded—for Zoe Walpole, whose flighty fancifulness lights up the stage as Frankie, and Deidra LaWan Starnes, whose empathy and dignity anchor the drama as Berenice, are giving two of the must-see performances of the season.
Frankie’s character arc runs the gamut of adolescent growing pains. She doesn’t fit in. She’s self-conscious about her looks. She’s nervous and at loose ends. Her mood is mercurial. She feels lonely and left out. But she’s got her heart set on one big hope that impels her throughout the play. Her older brother Jarvis (Jonathan Helwig), who’s in the service, is about to marry Janice (Caroline Dubberly), and Frankie loves them both so much she aches at the thought: “My heart feels them going away—going farther and farther away—while I am stuck here by myself.” So Frankie determines to go with them on their honeymoon and be with them and part of them wherever they live.
Berenice tries to talk sense into the girl. The testy-sympathetic byplay in Starnes’s and Walpole’s scenes together is wonderful to behold. Starnes, in particular, gives Berenice both a sternness and a gentle playfulness, as when she mimics a cat and mimes Noah’s two-by-two ark, such that this specific black/white mother-figure/daughter relationship becomes ever more moving and ever more evocative.
As we later learn, Berenice has her own impossible longing. Her first husband Ludie was the love of her life, and since he died she has married several different men trying without success to recover the love she lost. “My intention was to repeat me and Ludie,” she tells Frankie. When a suitor she’s seeing, T. T. (Dylan J. Fleming), drops by with her reefer head foster brother, Honey (Jonathan Del Palmer), we see passionate personal and family dimensions in Berenice’s character beyond her job as housekeeper, and Starnes’s glowingly rounded portrayal enriches both the play and us. There’s a stunning passage when Berenice is trying to explain to Frankie—deludedly obsessed with love for her brother and his wife—Berenice’s own drivenness to re-find love. Frankie is too young to understand, but we get it; we get that this beautifully nuanced play unfolds and embraces two parallel human heartaches across chasms of generation and race.
The Member of the Wedding comes to us from a time when storytelling on stage could afford to be languid. Accordingly, we are given considerable time to meet several supporting characters before Frankie’s and Berenice’s emotional through-lines catch hold. The most delightful and intriguing is Frankie’s clever six-year-old cousin, John Henry (William Carroccio in the performance I saw, sharing the role with S. Gabriel Mackenna). There is a poignant three-way bond among Berenice, Frankie, and John Henry; and John Henry’s own character arc is touching: He likes to play dress-up, including in Berenice’s hat and shoes. We can sense in this affectionate production that both Frankie and John Henry might identify as gender nonconforming or nonbinary were they written today.
We also meet two parents: John Henry’s mother, Mrs. West (Rebecca Ballinger), and Frankie’s shopowner father, Mr. Addams (Michael Crowley). Mr. Addams is upright and a good provider, yet with his character the play injects ugly reminders of white people’s casual racism. When Mr. Addams drops the n-word, the appalled look on Starnes’s face speaks volumes not in the script.
The tender loving care in Cara Gabriel’s direction is evident everywhere. The entire cast play their parts very well, if occasionally a little halting in the performance I saw—but it’s Starnes and Walpole who forge the show into an emotional whole. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set design creates a homey, period kitchen, patio, and backyard arbor in tones of ivory and moss green that all feel believably lived in. The same fond verisimilitude can be seen in Jason Arnold’s light design, Debra Kim Sivigny’s costume design, and Felysia Furnary’s props design. Neil McFadden’s sound design creates a credible context of offstage crickets, bluesy trumpet, and piano being tuned; and in tandem with Arnold’s lights, an enormously effective storm. (I did wish, however, that from where I sat front row house left there had not been a speaker drone in between sound cues that not only annoyed but made the actors sometimes hard to hear.)
It says something about our times that two white Southern women writers, Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers in The Member of the Wedding, still have something of importance to say about race relations in America. And it says something about American theater that these two works can still prompt conversations we still need to have. The one is in New York at scalpers’ rates. The other is readily available and affordable at 1st Stage in Tyson’s Corners—and it’s well worth the trip.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.