"The Member of the Wedding" occupies a revered place in theater history. Carson McCullers's adaptation of her own novel about a black maid and a white southern girl on the brink of adolescence was a sensation on Broadway in 1950, running for 501 performances and featuring a trio of portrayals by Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde over which critics and acting teachers marvel to this day.
Speaking of marvels, Harris herself was in the audience Wednesday night for the Ford's Theatre revival of the play. One hopes that the production, directed by Marshall W. Mason, brought happy memories flowing back, for it was her work in "The Member of the Wedding" that was a first major step in one of the great stage careers of the latter half of the 20th century. (The play transferred to the screen with the same cast a couple of years later.)
Nathalie Nicole Paulding, middle, and Lynda Gravatt possess the gentle rapport so crucial to making "The Member of the Wedding" work.
(T. Charles Erickson -- Ford's Theatre)
It would be gratifying to report that in other respects, this new production bottles anything close to the exhilaration that enveloped the original. But McCullers's tender handiwork reveals itself in only the meekest terms onstage at the historic Ford's. It runs a mere 105 minutes without intermission, yet somehow feels a lot longer. Part of the problem is strictly acoustical. Many lines -- particularly but not only those spoken by child actors -- are difficult to hear, at least from the seventh row on the left side of the house. Little in a theater is more tiring and corrosive to the spirit than words that are unintentionally being kept secret from you.
Though "The Member of the Wedding" has a large cast (13 actors), it is still a small play -- the coming-of-age story of lonely 12-year-old Frankie Addams (Nathalie Nicole Paulding). Her only real friend is her 6-year-old cousin next door, John Henry West (Alexander L. Lange). Because her mother died in childbirth and her father, Royal (John Lepard), has little time for her, it's been left to the maid, Berenice Sadie Brown (Lynda Gravatt), to counsel her through this uncomfortable transition to the teenage years.
Frankie is no shrinking violet. She's furious, in fact, at the enclosures that small-town life have imposed on her, and bitterly envious of her older brother Jarvis (Lee Aaron Rosen), who's about to marry and move away. Berenice is homespun-wise. With equal parts patience and tolerance, she must navigate both Frankie's spitfire temperament and the oppressive racial divide of the South in the mid-1940s.
Encouraged by Mason -- founding artistic director of Manhattan's Circle Repertory Company and masterly director of the plays of Lanford Wilson -- Gravatt and Paulding develop the gentle mother-daughter rapport so desperately required. Yet as the core of the piece, the relationship never fully takes hold. Perhaps time has eroded the sense of their bond as something we've never seen before. But you can't help wondering whether the evening might be more powerful if we had an opportunity to observe their interplay in much closer quarters. In any event, the performances seem to be calibrated to more intimate surroundings than the high-ceilinged Ford's.
Paulding's pixieish Frankie is best when she's at her most histrionic. The one scene that pierces the heart occurs after the brother's wedding. Frankie, determined to steal away with the bride and groom, is restrained by her father and commanded to give up this far-fetched scheme. Paulding manages an adroit account of the toothless defiance of the pre-adolescent. Gravatt, for her part, never panders to Berenice. It's a solid, dignified, unfussy portrayal. As John Henry, high-pitched, blond-topped Mr. Lange is very cute, but he needs to be worked with a bit more on intelligibility.
The visual world of the play is conjured well. John Lee Beatty's interior and exterior sets of the Addams homestead, perched on the Ford's stage turntable -- the purr of that rotating mechanism you can hear -- successfully transport us to Frankie's humdrum domestic world. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes are also suitable to the sartorial reserve of mid-century America in wartime.
It says something, though, that the most accomplished moment of this "Wedding" occurs at the wedding itself. The short scene is played beautifully in dumb show. On this occasion, the silence is golden.
The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. Directed by Marshall W. Mason. Lighting, Dennis Parichy; composer, Peter Kater; sound, Lindsay Jones; hair and wigs, Tom Watson. With Beth Hylton, Kimberly Schraf, Nina Kauffman, Ellen Warner, Jewell Robinson, Doug Brown, James J. Johnson, Kyle Schliefer. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Feb. 27 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-347-4833 or visit www.fordstheatre.org.