Berenice Sadie Brown knows a thing or two. The housekeeper knows, for instance, that 12-year-old Frankie Addams is obsessed with an upcoming family celebration. Gloating about her insight, Berenice executes a shimmying dance in the Addamses’ kitchen. Her hips rock and her shoulders twitch as she twirls, chanting: “Frankie’s got a crush! Frankie’s got a crush on the wedding!”
The canny, opinionated, spirited Berenice, channeled by actress Deidra LaWan Starnes, is the high point of 1st Stage’s industrious but stagey-looking rendition of Carson McCullers’s “The Member of the Wedding.” Director Cara Gabriel’s production outlines a distinct place, time and household dynamic, and some sequences capture the poignancy of McCullers’s coming-of-age tale, which evokes Frankie’s anguished longing to both escape her small-town surroundings and become a full participant in the adult world. (McCullers adapted her 1946 novel into a 1950 play).
But the figures onstage often look less like residents of 1945 Georgia than like contemporary actors conscientiously delivering lines and following prescribed blocking. Only Starnes’s Berenice consistently registers as a person living in, and responding to, the story’s specific moment.
Zoe Walpole does turn in a bold portrait of the insecure, precocious Frankie, whose bond with Berenice is as testy as it is deep. Walpole’s gawky body language aptly emphasizes Frankie’s not-child, not-adult status. One moment, this gangly adolescent is perching babyishly on the edge of the sink, her bare feet and knees drawn up under her; the next, she’s brandishing a kitchen knife to make herself look powerful. Still, a hint of artifice keeps this performance from being wholly persuasive, and Walpole’s variable Mid-Atlantic accent doesn’t help, given the Southern setting.
At the reviewed performance, William Carroccio confidently embodied John Henry, Frankie’s pensive, playful little cousin. (S. Gabriel Mackenna alternates in the role.) Michael Crowley exudes the right kindhearted imperiousness as Frankie’s father, and Jonathan Helwig is a sturdy presence as Frankie’s soon-to-be-married brother. Jonathan Del Palmer suggests the smoldering frustration of Honey, Berenice’s foster brother, whose experience testifies to the deep-rooted racism that haunts this society.
A corner of the society comes vividly to life in Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s yard-and-kitchen set, complete with retro appliances, scruffy linoleum and tacked-up children’s drawings. Jason Arnold’s calibrated lighting helps emphasize the dawdling summer hours, and Debra Kim Sivigny’s pertinent costumes include clothes that underscore Frankie’s yearning and callowness (such as the incongruous evening dress the girl unadvisedly buys on sale).
Despite such elements, “The Member of the Wedding” rarely transcends its mode of studied diligence. When it does, Starnes’s vigorous, idiosyncratic Berenice is usually responsible. In one memorable moment, the housekeeper tries to comfort the distressed Frankie by taking the girl into her lap. The loving gesture would not be so touching had we not seen Berenice’s teasing, lecturing, self-indulgent side, too.
The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. Directed by Cara Gabriel. Sound design, Neil McFadden; props, Felysia Furnary. With Rebecca Ballinger, Caroline Dubberly and Dylan J. Fleming. About two hours. Tickets: $15-$39. Through June 2 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons. 703-854-1856 or 1ststagetysons.org.