Tween angst in the South a puzzler for Triad Stage

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Twee, tween Southerner Frankie Addams (right), feels trapped in between the childish world of her cousin John Henry and the more grownup world of her servant Berenice in Triad Stage’s "The Member of the Wedding."

by Brian Clarey

It’s possible that the set was the star of the show: a simple Southern kitchen set on rollers, drawn across Triad Stage’s three-quarter thrust performance space to create a buffer between the yard where the children of The Member of the Wedding have their dramas, and the interior of the house, where children and servants rarely tread.

In the play, as in life, all the real action takes place in the kitchen.

It’s the domain of Berenice Sadie Brown, black housekeeper to the white Addams family in this small Georgia town amid the chaos and possibility of World War II, brought to life by Triad Stage regular Cassandra Lowe Williams.

Berenice dispenses meals, wisdom and discipline from her seat at the table, interspersed with pieces of her past — she had four husbands before engaging with her current beau TT — during the weekend of Jarvis Addams’ wedding at the family home.

Carson McCullers, the notable Southern writer who gave us The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in 1940, adapted her 1946 novel for the script after encouragement from her friend Tennessee Williams.

It’s something of a roman á clef — like the main character Frankie Addams, McCullers came of age in small-town Georgia, and like Addams she yearned for something more. McCullers left for New York City at 17 to begin her literary career. Frankie, just 12, has more vague aspirations.

As the title suggests, Frankie wants more than anything to be a member of the wedding between her brother Jarvis and his fiancé Janis. After being smitten by the outward signs of their love, Frankie concocts a fantasy in which she is a part of the newlywed couple’s life. She wants to be married to them, to go with them wherever their road takes them. Noting that the couple’s names both start with the same letters, Frankie starts calling herself “Jasmine” in a running gag that actor Erin Schmidt plays to solid effect.

Schmidt’s Frankie moves seamlessly from manic to poignant to outright disturbing behavior. Her scenes with the neighborhood children, played by actual schoolkids from Greensboro Day School, Canterbury School and the Community Theatre of Greensboro farm system, strike chords of tween angst. And her meltdown that ensues when she realizes that she will not be joining the married couple on their honeymoon, combines with light and sound for a disturbing effect.

Williams clearly relishes in her role as Berenice, the best drawn character of the lot. She’s known joy and sorrow, has a knack with the children and maintains a presence in the household common in Southern literature of the era.

She also provides an anchor to the racial element of the tale — TT’s young charge, Honey Brown, bears the brunt of the Jim Crow mentality of the town and eventually must flee for his life.

There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird everywhere — but The Member of the Wedding came out nearly 15 years earlier.

Proper due must be given to Howard C. Jones, who designed the set that is as much a character in the story as anything else.

Triad Stage always rewards close scrutiny of its set designs, which give insight to relevant themes and characters’ motivations. Childish drawings hanging on the frame of the stage echo the ones scrawled by Frankie’s young cousin, John Henry, while hiding underneath Berenice’s kitchen table; when they drop to the floor it evokes the passage of time. A box of Lux detergent on the kitchen sink comes into play later as a punch line. And the floor of the stage itself is patterned from puzzle pieces, emphasizing the point that Frankie does not know where she fits in.