Imagine a great Chekhov story crossed with a Tennessee Williams play and you'll have some notion of the warm brilliance of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. And yet the play has a sensibility all of its own, as is proved by this rare, welcome and perfectly pitched revival by Matthew Dunster. Set in a small town in the American south in 1945, the piece was adapted by the author from her own novel and first produced in 1950.
The ostensibly central figure is Frankie Adams, a lonely, restless, 12-year-old tomboy experiencing all the turbulence of pubescent emotions. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is so shockingly authentic in the role that you'd swear that the management had somehow tricked a girl still actually in the midst of this predicament to transfer her behaviour directly to the stage. It just doesn't look like acting as she explodes in tantrums or bites her little six-year-old cousin, John Henry.
Vocally, the actress can be a bit grating and high-pitched, but she communicates, with just the right mix of the exasperating and the poignant, this isolated teenager's desire to belong to something bigger than herself. Indeed, Frankie's excited involvement in the wedding plans of her brother is such that she fondly imagines she'll be allowed to tag along on the honeymoon, thus making (as she puts it) "the we of me".
Time changes how plays are received, and the heart of this piece now resides in Berenice, the African-American nurse who has been a substitute mother for Frankie. McCullers wrote the play during the early stirring of the civil rights movement; had she done so a bit later she might have made more of the rather rudimentary character of Berenice's foster brother, who winds up knifing a racist shopkeeper who refuses to serve him. But there's a terrible silence of shock and shame in the theatre when Frankie's father tells this youth that "I'll be so glad when the war is over and biggety, worthless niggers get back to work".
The single-named actress Portia is magnificent as Berenice. She takes the character's wisdom, dignity, honesty, humour, sadness, and stoicism, and miraculously makes them add up to more than the sum of their parts. Berenice is a dramatic cousin of the black maid in Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change. Like Kushner's character, she has missed the boat of history, as we see in the beautifully sustained, Cherry Orchard-recalling final act.
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