Americans are yearners, by habit and by constitution. We’re restless, and we tend to believe that there’s something more waiting for us — more satisfying, more fulfilling — if we can but muster the courage to pursue it. The urge to reboot our lives by moving somewhere different — what in recovery circles is called “a geographic,” and what for many New Yorkers is a thought as common as wondering what we’ll have for dinner tonight — falls into this category, and is also the engine that drives Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, currently being revived at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in a production directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Like The Glass Menagerie (whose creator, Tennessee Williams, encouraged McCullers to adapt her 1946 novel for the stage), it is a Southern memory play, featuring a young protagonist as an autobiographical stand-in for an author looking back in anger.
That protagonist here is an angst-ridden twelve-year-old tomboy named Frankie (Tavi Gevinson), who can no longer tolerate her oppressive, small-Southern-town existence. She wants to be anyone else, anywhere else. Laura Jellinek’s beautifully expressionistic set manifests this sense of agitation before the lights even come up, making the kitchen — in which most of the action takes place — tiny and claustrophobic, in a small corner of the large stage. Towering over it is the house’s exterior: an impenetrable, windowless wall of wooden clapboards, a prison that stretches outward and upward toward infinity. Jellinek’s omnipresent, foreboding house becomes a character in the production.
Not much really happens in Member of the Wedding. Instead, like one of Strindberg’s late chamber plays, a mood is created and sustained, with themes and variations stated and restated. Symbols and subtle cues illustrate a world rife with unease: A static-y radio never offers any kind of listening pleasure. Someone is unsuccessfully trying to tune a piano in a neighboring house — over and over, every note of an ascending melodic scale played on it is struck, except the last one, leaving tension suspended in the air. A trumpeter is heard in the distance playing a mournful tune, but this, too, stops abruptly, without resolve.
The lives lived in the quiet, unnamed town are small, the characters’ understanding of the larger world beyond limited. Most of Frankie’s daily interactions are with Berenice (Roslyn Ruff), the housekeeper charged with taking care of her while her father is at work, or with her young cousin, John Henry (Logan Schuyler Smith), who lives next door but spends most of his time with them. And while the conversations that are held take place mainly between the two women, the boy is a constant presence. He pretends to be preoccupied, but it’s clear he’s listening closely, repeating random, overheard phrases and turning them into spooky refrains. “Grey eyes is glass,” he says solemnly, as though he’s unlocked a deep secret of the universe.
What makes McCullers’s tale interesting to consider at this particular moment is that it involves people who are so sealed off from the outside world that they seem to be living in an alternate reality, full of fantasies and half-truths. Frankie and her ilk have no windows to other realms. “I wish I was somebody else besides me,” Frankie says. “If I had to be me for the rest of my life, I think I would die.” These are not masters of their own destinies, but people caught in the rut of their circumstances. For Berenice, a single black woman in the South, the obstacles are obvious. Frankie’s challenges are more subtle: She is a misfit, unwilling to resign herself to the common fate of the insects that populate her home. “Those moths could fly anywhere,” she says, “yet they keep hanging around the windows of this house.”
Frankie is precocious, eccentric, too smart for her own good — but not unsympathetic. We remember that feeling, that angst, that raging wrestling match that took place in our consciousness when the vast, unknowable immensity of the larger universe first began to reveal itself to us. Rather than acting out according to her desperate, unmanageable emotions, Frankie allows herself to feel the feelings, directing her attentions inward. And the feelings are horrible. “I feel just exactly like someone has peeled all the skin off me,” she says at one point. She is an outcast among the neighborhood children. Outside of John Henry and Berenice, she has no one with whom she can be herself; even they struggle to understand her. She observes that everyone else around her “has a we” — someone else that they belong to or with — but not her.
Although the action of the play takes place mostly in Frankie’s kitchen, McCullers manages to evoke an entire world. (The novel’s scenes in the town’s local bar — the most dramatic moments of the book — were originally part of McCullers’s play, but were cut in the pre-Broadway tryout in the interest of time.) Like her contemporary (and fellow Georgian) Flannery O’Connor, McCullers has a fascination with oddity. Berenice wears a glass eye; Frankie and John Henry discuss freak shows, midgets, and a man with a monkey on a string; and a nonagenarian “vegetable lady” (Vinie Burrows) peddles her wares from house to house. (Burrows’s walk-on cameo is the theatrical highlight of the evening, offering a vivid glimpse into a forgotten America and, in the process, managing to stop time.)
McCullers’s larger theme here is one she shares with some of her Yankee peers — contemporaries like Edward Hopper, Paul Bowles, and Connie Converse, who were also diving headlong into the abyss of spiritual disconnection. “We all of us somehow caught,” Berenice says. “We born this way or that way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow. … And maybe we wants to widen and bust free. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us caught somehow all by ourself.” Frankie agrees: “You are walking down a street and you meet somebody, anybody. And you look at each other. And you are you. And he is him. Yet when you look at each other, the eyes make a connection. Then you go off one way. And he goes off another way. … We pass alongside each other and don’t have any connection.” This is anyone in a Hopper painting, or in a Bowles story. It is also the narrator of Converse’s song “One by One.”
When Member of the Wedding debuted on Broadway in 1950, it starred the great singer Ethel Waters as Berenice, and a twenty-four-year-old Julie Harris as Frankie. Waters, who had fallen on hard times professionally, saw her career revived. Harris saw hers made. Both reprised their roles in the 1952 film version, sealing their performances for posterity. Though McCullers loved Harris’s commitment to the role (for which the actress received an Oscar nomination), her Frankie is oddly mannered and a bit grating, and speaks as though she’s received top marks in elocution at finishing school. Gevinson, also playing younger (she is twenty-two), seems to take her cue from Harris’s interpretation, but I note in both a missing flavor of the South, which — for anyone who’s spent time there knows — is more than just a vocal accent. It is a pace, a color, a languor — made more evident in the current revival in the gentle, warm performances of Ruff and Schuyler Smith.
We engage in all manner of distraction to avoid, or at least assuage, our dis-ease. We overwork; we endlessly consume in an attempt to fill that which cannot be filled; we are glued to our glowing devices — anything, just not this reality. McCullers faces the existential issue head-on: “What is it all about?” Frankie asks. “People loose and at the same time caught. Caught and loose. All these people and you don’t know what joins them up. There’s bound to be some sort of reason and connection. Yet somehow I can’t seem to name it. I don’t know.” Frankie longs for the day when she “won’t have to worry about things anymore”; Berenice counters: “You don’t have to now. Nobody requires you to solve the riddles of the world.”
In McCullers’s novel, the characters’ consideration of life’s unanswerable questions leads to the book’s most poignant moment: Huddled together in the dark of the kitchen, Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry each begin to cry, spontaneously and simultaneously. In the play (and the subsequent film), rather than crying, they sing, diminishing the mysterious power of the scene. Perhaps this was one of McCullers’s many concessions to the original Broadway director, Harold Clurman, whose own reservations about taking on the play included his opinion that it might not be a play. Is McCullers’s original, unexpurgated, original script perhaps still extant? As I exited the Williamstown revival, I was left to wonder whether the world has yet to see the definitive dramatization of her quietly brutal elegy.