Drama Princess

Arizona Onstage's 'The Member of the Wedding' will stir your soul

When I see a play which touches something sad and tender in me, I want to go home, pour three fingers of Jack Daniel's and chain-smoke Marlboros. (I don't, though; I just think the image seems right.)

So when I went home after seeing Arizona Onstage Productions' The Member of the Wedding, I felt that J.D.-and-cloud of-smoke urge which told me that the big ol' soup pot of my soul had been given a stir.

Adapted by Carson McCullers from her book of the same name, The Member of the Wedding is a warm and soulful hymn about the passion of adolescence. McCullers has created an unlikely triumvirate of characters at the center of the story, set in 1945 in a small Southern town, which would be simplicity itself—except that one of those characters is a 12-year-old girl, smart, sassy and totally at the mercy of her wildly shifting feelings, which give rise to an unending kaleidoscope of drama. Frankie is traversing that curious land which lies between the fading innocence of childhood and the inevitable, bruising land of adulthood. And her voyage is not without her fair share of tragedy.

Director Carol Calkins has guided the production in a way that shows a great respect for the play, but there are issues—some minor, some more notable—which prevent this from slam-dunk perfection. However, the production has what is absolutely required to make McCullers' story work: It has heart.

It's late summer, and the Addams household is excited about the upcoming marriage of serviceman Jarvis (Taylor Rascher) and his intended, Janice (Dylan Page). Jarvis' sister, Frankie (Daria Berg), their younger cousin John Henry (James Cockrell), and Frankie's black nanny, Berenice (Carley Preston), hold court in the kitchen (a marvelous accomplishment by set designer Jared Strickland), where Frankie gets excited beyond all reason in anticipation of her brother's wedding.

Frankie thinks too much, plays too hard and conjures extraordinary fantasies about what this event means for her. Seeing her brother and Janice together has set something in motion within her, she claims. She is baffled by the effect the event is having on her, flooding her with thoughts she has never experienced before, thoughts that are "feelings, not pictures." She discovers an intense loneliness, realizing that she fits in nowhere and is welcome in no group that can give her a sense of belonging. One moment, she flies around the kitchen, pouting at her dull life in her silly little town; in the next, she's scoffing in contempt at the bewilderment of John Henry and Berenice. Then, in a heartbeat, she becomes a whirling dervish of purpose and plans: She will go away with Janice and Jarvis after the wedding to their new home, a hundred miles away from stupid Berenice and ridiculous John Henry. At last she can name what she has been lacking, what is making her so miserable: She has no "we of me." But that, she is sure, is all about to change.

Of course, her plans don't coincide with the desires of others.

There is a commonly held rule that actors who share the stage with animals and children do so at their own risk. That means that Preston is being immensely daring, because she shares the stage with not one, but two can't-help-but-steal-the-scene children. But she admirably holds her own, offering the sum of both the solemn and exuberant experiences of Berenice's life as she provides a quiet strength and uncomplicated faith to anchor and comfort the children. We absolutely believe her utter devotion. As the first act ends, she holds lanky, boney Frankie on her lap, where she has collapsed after a manic outburst, and sweetly sings the hymn "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," with John Henry joining in with his high-pitched sincerity. We wilt with the desire to be able to sit on someone's lap and be assured that everything will be all right, even if somewhere deep inside us, we doubt that it will.

Director Calkins has taken some big risks here as well, casting an actual 13-year-old to play the complex Frankie. Fortunately, in Berg, she has found an impressively talented young actress-in-training who leads this piece with spunk and pluck, while revealing a longing so plaintive and desperate that it makes your teeth hurt.

Cockrell as John Henry is a pint-sized miracle, bespectacled, impish and guileless. His antics make us laugh even as we cringe while witnessing the fits of Frankie, the drama princess. Both of these young actors are gifted, and although they bend with the gravity of their roles in the play, they never break. They will steal your heart.

Strickland's set provides a detailed and authentic environment which well evokes the summer, the period and the world from which the story arises. Other technical components have also been thoughtfully chosen, especially the music, but on opening night, these were not all seamlessly stitched together. And there are a few storytelling problems, including an ill-defined climax and finish.

But there is enough—enough to make you smile. And grimace. And remember. Finally, there's enough heart to make you absolutely glad you came.

I think I will have that Jack Daniel's now.

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