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In the waning days of World War II, a 12-year-old misfit named Frankie Addams yearns for many things: to leave her small Southern town, to belong to something, to grow up. Frankie's story unfolds in the Barksdale Theatre's "The Member of the Wedding," and during its three deliberately paced acts, this production meanders pleasantly enough. But occasionally the play snaps into focus with bracing clarity and the dramatic tension suddenly becomes palpable. There is nothing particularly wrong with the production; in fact, with director Scott Wichmann enhancing the comedic side business during several scenes, it's quite enjoyable. But those sporadic moments of intensity made me yearn for a play that included just a few more jolts to the nervous system.
Ironically, the play's source had a good bit more drama, including a prominent subplot involving Frankie's dangerous liaison with a sexually aggressive soldier. But when Carson McCullers adapted her novel for the stage, she focused on two other sources of tension. The first is the inevitable clash between fantasy and reality as Frankie (played by Lexi Langs) begins to tell everyone that she will be leaving town with her big brother and his bride after their upcoming wedding. And the second is the entrenched racial inequity of the time that lies just below the surface and rises to the fore in ugly and unexpected ways.
The pivotal character is the steadfast and kindly housekeeper Berenice, played with luminous dignity by Katherine Louis. She serves as the bridge between the play's white characters -- Frankie, her father (David Bridgewater) and her impish six-year-old cousin, John Henry (Eric Evans) and the town's African-American subclass represented by Berenice's suitor, T.T. (Tony Cosby), and the quick-to-anger musician Honey (Alec Stephens III). I could see a modern retelling of this story pushing Frankie's story to the side and homing in on the intriguing details McCullers includes about Berenice (how did she lose her eye? How did the love of her life die?).
Louis anchors the production with her performance, capturing the bittersweet joy and wry self-knowledge of Berenice's reminiscences. Cosby oozes authenticity, and Stephens hints at a simmering electricity that I hope gets exploited in future roles. Bridgewater does well but is essentially underutilized, as is Jill Bari Steinberg in her brief stint as John Henry's mother.
Much of the play's success rests on the narrow shoulders of Evans and Langs, and both acquit themselves nicely. Evans seems a natural, completely unself-conscious as he playfully scampers about among the grown-ups. Langs portrays the turbulent tides of pre-adolescence with remarkable confidence, though her Southern accent occasionally shades into British territory.
Technically, the Barksdale production sparkles, with an expansive, homey set designed by Brian Barker that manages to seem twice as big as it is. Lighting designer Lynne Hartman illuminates the proceedings with a warm autumnal glow. She also provides convincing lightning flashes in the last act when, after scenes largely playful and nostalgic, the play turns decidedly darker.
There is plenty of foreshadowing of this turn not the least of which is a discussion of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan but it's still a bit surprising. And even then, most of the action takes place offstage, including the culmination of Frankie's determined attempt to flee with the newlyweds. While "The Member of the Wedding" offers a satisfying slice of Southern living, I left wishing McCullers had cut just a little bit deeper. S"The Member of the Wedding" plays at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees through Oct. 28.
Tickets are $35-$38. 282-2620.