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IT’S A CLASSIC

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When "The Member of the Wedding" opened at the Empire Theatre in Manhattan, in 1950, critics doubted that a play with so little dramatic action could be successful onstage.

But the play, which Carson McCullers had adapted from her 1946 novel, contained much of the poetic language and evocative images that made the novel so effective, as well as the extraordinary performances of Julie Harris (whose career was launched with this role) as young Frankie Addams, and Ethel Waters as Berenice Sadie Brown, her widowed father’s housekeeper and a surrogate mother to Frankie.

Despite the critics’ predictions, "The Member of the Wedding" ran for 501 performances, won the New York Drama Circle Award and became a successful motion picture directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1952, with both Harris and Waters reprising their roles.

The Impact Theatre’s production of "The Member of the Wedding," directed by Daniel Angus Cox, has all of McCullers’ brilliant dialogue and good, if not perfect performances by Katherine Storr, as Frankie, and Lisa M. Dixon, as Berenice, but this is not enough to offset an overall sluggish production with poor support from the minor characters.

"Wedding" is a coming-of-age story set in a small Georgia town toward the end of World War II. Race relations and the devastation happening overseas provide a meaningful backdrop to what is happening onstage and in the lives of the characters.

Frankie is an awkward 12-year-old searching for love and acceptance. She spends her idle summer days in Berenice’s kitchen - complaining, planning and reminiscing with Berenice and her 6-year-old cousin, the bespectacled and bookish John Henry (Lynly Ehrich). When her brother, Jarvis (James Edwards), returns from his Army post with his girlfriend, Janice (Crystal Connolly), and announces they are going to be married, Frankie decides that the couple is "the we of me" and determines to leave with them after the wedding.

The levelheaded Berenice advises Frankie that she’s seen many strange things in her life - including a boy changing into a girl - but never a person falling in love with a wedding. And Berenice knows a thing or two about love, having been married numerous times, always to violent, mentally ill or otherwise unstable men, except for the saint-like Ludie Freeman.

Nixon is, for the most part, very effective as the warm and feisty Berenice. She has a nice voice but would do a better job with Berenice’s signature song, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," if she didn’t try to be Marion Anderson and sang simply and sweetly.

Storr captures all the gangling insecurity of a young girl on the brink of adolescence - the rebelliousness, the uncertainty and the longing. But after a while she makes the very engaging Frankie less than sympathetic by the incessant shrillness of her delivery. We never quite feel Frankie’s despair and suspect Storr doesn’t either.

In both the movie and play, the role of John Henry was played by Brandon de Wilde, who made his debut in the play and became the first child actor to win Broadway’s prestigious Donaldson Award. Unfortunately, Cox was unable to find a child actor for this production and the role is filled by Lynly Ehrich, a young, capable actress who is hopelessly miscast.

John Henry is supposed to be tiny and submissive. But Ehrich is obviously a woman, and she is also the same height as Storr, so no matter how much she hunches down, she ends up looking Storr straight in the eye.

Among the supporting cast, only Sean Eager stands out as Mr. Addams, a single father perplexed by his daughter’s whims, but confident in what is his due as a white male in the Jim Crow South.

This production has some serious problems, but this reviewer must confess - McCullers is one of her favorite writers and "The Member of the Wedding" is one of her favorite novels - probably among her top five, right behind the great Russians authors. And even with all its faults, this "Member of the Wedding" is certainly worth seeing, if only to witness the magnificent way McCullers handles character, mood and the glorious English language.

 

The Impact Theatre’s production of "The Member of the Wedding" plays through Sept. 21, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 students and seniors, and $10 children under 12. The Impact Theatre is located at 190 Underhill Ave. at Sterling Place. For reservations, call (718) 390-7163.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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