Two bright lights in `Wedding'

Gravatt, Paulding spark production at Ford's

TheaterReview

February 16, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Two-thirds of the way into Carson McCullers' 1950 play The Member of the Wedding, there's a scene in which the character of the black housekeeper, Berenice, explains why she's been married so many times.

As portrayed by Lynda Gravatt at Ford's Theatre in Washington, Berenice seems to relive meeting each husband as she talks about him. But most of all, she relives the sad realization that after the death of her beloved first husband, all she was doing was trying to find copies - or at least "little pieces" - of him.

The truth is, of course, that Berenice can never find him again. This is one of the hard lessons she's learned and tries to impart to Frankie, the 12-year-old white girl for whom she has served as a substitute mother ever since Frankie's mother died in childbirth.

Nathalie Nicole Paulding's fidgety, tomboy Frankie begins the play at loose ends, yearning to be part of a world that seems to be spinning without her. Specifically, her serviceman brother has returned home and announced that he is getting married that weekend. Initially intrigued and startled, she quickly feels left out, and then irrationally decides that when the bride and groom leave after the wedding, she'll go with them.

Gravatt's deeply felt portrayal of Berenice and Paulding's yearning-filled portrayal of Frankie are the best reasons to see director Marshall W. Mason's otherwise prosaic production.

The production does, however, capture the sense of a small Southern town during World War II, a place where bigotry is so entrenched that, after Frankie's father unleashes some racist remarks at her foster brother, Berenice reprimands the relative for "acting so impudent."

What drives Berenice to say this is fear for her brother's safety. Like Paulding's awkward, out-of-sorts Frankie, who lost her mother and now feels as if she's losing her brother, Berenice has lost just about everyone in her life. This creates a bond between the girl and the housekeeper that Frankie is too young to appreciate, but that comes through palpably as Paulding's Frankie flails about selfishly and crossly, and Gravatt's Berenice repeatedly tries to rein her in and console her.

The only other impassioned performance is that of James J. Johnson as Berenice's outspoken foster brother, an African-American who gets his first - and last - taste of real freedom when he dangerously stands up for his rights. His character may be on the run when he tells Berenice, "I'm free and it makes me happy," but Johnson almost glows as he expresses these hard-earned feelings of independence and dignity.

Frankie's belief that the world is spinning so fast that it makes her dizzy appears to have been taken literally by designer John Lee Beatty, who has created a turntable set - kitchen on one side, back yard on the other - that cranks around and around. But far from spinning quickly, the set's sluggish revolutions add tedium to a production that - despite only 90 intermission-less minutes - goes overboard in re-creating the tedium of bygone small-town summer days.

In the end, having endured more tragedy, Frankie may be a little more grown up, but it's Berenice, alone on stage and singing softly and wistfully, "I sing because I'm happy," who brings real poignancy to the production.

Theater

What: The Member of the Wedding

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. selected Sundays and 1 p.m. selected Wednesdays and Thursdays; through Feb. 27

Tickets: $25-$48

Call: 202-347-4833

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