Adapted for the stage by American writer Carson McCullers from her novella of the same name, The Member Of The Wedding was originally performed in 1950.
The plays main story examines the difficult journey of a girl from child to adolescent, while at the same time encapsulating the 1940’s Deep South experience for many black Americans. Frankie Adams is twelve, her mother died at birth and her widowed father is completely preoccupied by his business. Frankie is left in the care of the black maid Berenice and has her seven year old cousin John Henry for company. Then her older brother, who is in the army, brings his fiance home and announces that the wedding will take place at the end of the week, and the lonely and frustrated Frankie convinces herself that when the couple leave town after the wedding they will take her with them.
While the play has a large cast, in the main it revolves around the relationship between Frankie, Berenice and John Henry and the many hours they spend in each others company. Frankie is a girl who does not really fit in or belong, shes a tomboy, and Flora Spencer-Longhurst successfully brings out the characters childish petulance and frustration. Hers is a performance thats easy to emapthise with, you feel desperately sorry for this girl who is marginalised in her own family and who does not understand the terrible changes taking place in her world.
I have little doubt that McCullers original intentions was to make Frankie the keystone of this play, but perhaps because of the wonderful performance by American actor Portia in the role of Berenice, it is this character that becomes the heart of the piece.
Berenice is a woman who has been disappointed by life and yet holds on to the fact that for five years she was a married to a man she loved. She worries desperately about Frankie as well as her brother, the hot-headed Honey. As played by Portia, she is a powerful, matriarchal woman, who even when she is cruel to young Frankie, remains sympathetic in the eyes of the audience. Her stillness has a power and her ability to convey utter desolation is such that many around me were in tears at the end.
Theo Stephenson, as Frankie’s cousin, amply holds his own again these excellent actresses, often stealing their thunder. His small pinched face, behind big specs, shows a little boy who obviously loves Frankie and Berenice even to the exclusion of his own mother.
The inventive set, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, conveys the hot, stormy Deep South atmosphere as well as highlighting the holding pen that Frankie is trapped in. The rotting arbour, peeling paint and thin trees all add to the sense of something decayed and badly wrong.
This is a beautifully directed and acted production that, while appearing to focus on the adolescent turmoil of Frankie, also manages to say something valuable about the black American experience and the early seeds of the civil rights movement. (Indeed, McCullers play still has the ability to shock at one point drawing loud gasps at the way Honey and Berenice are treated). This is as superb and satisfying a piece of theatre as I have seen this year and I urge people to see it if they have the opportunity.