In his inaugural season as the new Ford’s Theater honcho, Paul Tetreault has promised to improve programming by bringing top thesp and creative talent to the venerable institution. He has done just that with a thought-provoking production of Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding,” artfully guided by director Marshall Mason.
The 1946 play about the yearnings of a precocious and temperamental young girl is one of the high-profile revivals selected by Tetreault to launch his tenure as successor to the late Frankie Hewitt. Mason has aimed for maximum relevance by bringing out the play’s undertones of thoughtless discrimination against African-Americans.
An expert cast is led by Lynda Gravatt as the housekeeper and Nathalie Nicole Paulding (who replaced Natalie Portman as Anne Frank in the 1997 Broadway revival) as the young girl. Gravatt brings a reassuring and compassionate presence to the role of Berenice Sadie Brown, employee of the Addams family and surrogate mother to their child, Frankie. The character copes with the persistent climate of racial prejudice in the rural Southern household with great dignity as she juggles duty with personal matters. It is a nicely measured performance.
Paulding’s character is a whirl of petulant behavior that today would be diagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder. The lonely misfit in her tiny universe is a study of conflicting adolescent impulses as she dreams of both independence and acceptance, played out in her delusional scheme to accompany newlyweds to the wild blue yonder.
To slam home the point, she is a pitiable figure clad in a bright orange gown for the garden wedding. Paulding demonstrates considerable maturity in the difficult role (which on opening night included the pressure of having Julie Harris, Broadway’s original Frankie, in the front row).
Other standouts in the cast include John Lepard as the aloof father and James J. Johnson as Berenice’s rebellious brother.
John Lee Beatty’s handsome twin sets, inside and outside of the Addams household, see plenty of traffic thanks to the stage’s frequently spinning turntable.