A Little World, Big in Heart. THEATER: REVIEW. `The Member of the Wedding' manages to transcend limitations of era and locale
NEW YORK — THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING Play by Carson McCullers. Directed by Harold Scott. Starring Esther Rolle. AMERICA's changing racial perspectives have not changed the human dynamics of ``The Member of the Wedding'' since it was first presented in 1950. Adapted from her novella at the urging of Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers's tender genre play is a period piece that speaks for its own time but with a universality that transcends limitations of era and locale. The work's enduring appeal has been conscientiously preserved in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival starring Esther Rolle, most widely known among her many credits for TV's ``Good Times.''
Mrs. McCullers called her adaptation ``an inward play and the conflicts are inward conflicts. ... It is concerned with the weight of time, the hazards of human existence, bolts of chance.''
Yet within the playwright's broad analysis, the human predicaments become tangible in poignant human terms. Whatever its larger - and subsequent - implications, ``The Member of the Wedding'' is a play about particular relationships and the unpredictabilities of human destiny.
The compassionate and sometimes humorous events unfold within the kitchen premises of the Addams household in a small Georgia town in 1945. This little world unto itself is the domain of Berenice Sadie Brown (Ms. Rolle), the Addams's warmhearted black servant.
The kitchen provides a hospitable retreat for motherless Frankie Addams (Amelia Campbell), whose adolescent tomboy aggressiveness betrays her outsider loneliness, and for Frankie's appealing little cousin John Henry West (Calvin Lennon Armitage at the performance I attended). The three friends play cards, share confidences, and otherwise pass the warm summer afternoons. As the day approaches for her soldier brother Jarvis (David Whalen) to marry pretty Janice (Jeri Leer), Frankie becomes obsessed with the idea of accompanying the couple on their honeymoon. Needless to say, the newlyweds depart without the distraught ``member of the wedding.'' In the third act, Mrs. McCullers looses her ``bolts of chance'' with the deaths of John Henry and of Berenice's foster brother Honey (William Christian), who hangs himself while in jail on charges of attacking a white man.
``The Member of the Wedding'' turns inward for its sad denouement. The Addamses are moving. A maturing Frankie has found a boyfriend. Berenice is left alone - a moment Rolle invests with the movingly quiet dignity that has made her a steadfast presence throughout the play.
Although the performance as a whole still seems somewhat tentative, director Harold Scott and his colleagues have kept faith with the humanity and affection underlying Mrs. McCullers's memorable period piece. Besides Ms. Campbell's strenuously restless Frankie and young Mr. Armitage's engaging John Henry, the principals include Drew Snyder as a preoccupied Mr. Addams and Lou Ferguson as Berenice's gentlemanly admirer.
The Roundabout production, which is scheduled to run through May 7, has been serviceably designed by Thomas Cariello (setting), Shirley Prendergast (lighting), and Andrew B. Marlay (costumes).