The Member of the Wedding
Carson McCullers is best known for her prose fiction and indeed this play has been adapted from one of her novels set in To Kill a Mockingbird country. When it opened in 1950, it must have contained one of the oddest central triumvirates seen on Broadway up to that point with leading roles for a Black actress and two children.
The protagonist is talented newcomer Flora Spencer-Longhurst's Frankie Addams, a thirteen year old tomboy living in the Southern part of the USA during the last years of the Second World War. We first see her on the brink of a joyless struggle with the pains of adolescence.
Her father is cold and mother died when she was born, so the fount of all wisdom is the colored maid Berenice, played by American actress Portia. This unorthodox pairing brings to mind the relationship in Tony Kushner's musical Caroline (or Change) and one imagines, has been repeated in numerous other literary and real life equivalents.
Despite protestations to the contrary, Frankie's best friend and protégé is her little cousin John Henry (aged 7), played with great confidence by Ethan Brooke, who also reveals a good singing voice when a spiritual is required.
The lights come up to reveal an over-sized set that is the family home, complete with wooded yard. Robert Innes Hopkins has done a fine job in creating an imposing structure that is presented diagonally to the audience.
In it, we meet Frankie's happy brother Jarvis and his affianced Janice. For whatever reason, having been rejected by the local girls' club, the heroine decides that she will become a second bride at the wedding - and on the honeymoon.
The enthusiasm of this overly-imaginative girl and its reflection on her tiny cousin becomes wearing for poor, one-eyed Berenice, who proves remarkably patient and long-suffering but that is part of Miss McCullers' message. Even after a war, the lot of the black man and woman is to be degraded and downtrodden.
Her brother Honey (John Macmillan) eventually snaps and gets the freedom of the noose but dies a contented man after a life not too far from slavery.
At the same time, Frankie makes her own, less successful bid for freedom and the play then pivots around a stormy night spectacularly brought to us with the significant aid of sound and lighting designers, Paul Arditti and Philip Gladwell.
That night following the wedding and Frankie's inevitable rebuff leads to two deaths and changes for all of the remaining characters, as the girl makes a major step to maturity and the extended family breaks up.
The Member of the Wedding is a touching portrait of a young girl growing to maturity but it is more subtle than that, with its depiction of the Black experience. While nobody realised it, this was the point in history that augured the beginning of the end for the suppression of a people who really were on the brink of emancipation almost two centuries after it was first promised.
Director Matthew Dunster may not always get the pacing quite right but he brings out excellent performances from the three leads, Portia magisterial, Flora Spencer-Longhurst frustrated and anguished in equal measure and Ethan Brooke (who shares the role of John Henry) witty and remarkably assured.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher