Carson McCullers, the wunderkind Southern novelist who was both adored and shunned in post- World War II literary circles, was a most unlikely playwright. The finely wrought emotion evident in her androgynous young characters was a product of the careful plotting and golden language common to good novels -- which is not necessarily the stuff of good plays. But in 1946 McCullers was taken under Tennessee Williams's wing; that summer in Nantucket, she sat across the table from the great playwright working on the adaptation of her novel The Member of the Wedding. And luckily, it's possible to see Williams's hand threading through the play, which follows the story of a devastatingly lonely 14-year-old girl named Frankie. Main Street Theater has tackled the work and come up with a charming, if uneven, production as their second to last play this season.
Though it was a last-minute replacement for the musical Once on This Island, The Member of the Wedding fits nicely with the rest of Main Street's season of strong female character plays. Frankie's independence is an echo of Arcadia's Thomasina, Mary, Mary's Mary and An Ideal Husband's Mrs. Cheveley.
Motherless and virtually friendless, Frankie has a tough case of loneliness. Her father has only marginal interest in her, her young cousin John Henry proves more annoying than entertaining and her black cook, Berenice, is perplexed by Frankie's deep longing for companionship. If The Member of the Wedding can be described as an emotional landscape, it's a decidedly blue one.
As played by an indefatigable Shannon Emerick, Frankie is as full of fire as she is of tenderness. When she isn't elected into a prissy neighborhood girls' club, Berenice suggests that Frankie start a club of her own with the younger neighborhood rug rats, to which Frankie spits back, stomping her foot, "I don't want to be the president of all those young, leftover people." Still, there is in her a desperate need to be loved by her brother and his fiancee, who are, she's convinced, "the two prettiest people I've ever seen."
A little whirlwind of purpose -- namely, to be an integral element in her brother's wedding and honeymoon -- Emerick's Frankie is a wild thing, lashing out at Berenice when she suggests that it's not really appropriate for a relative to tag along with newlyweds. Because the language of McCullers's play is a bit too neat for the stage, the center of the action must exist in Frankie's struggle for love, and Emerick is perfectly geared for that. Too often, though, The Member of the Wedding feels like a one-woman show -- primarily because the supporting cast is uniformly weak: Edna Auguillard stumbles over her lines as Berenice, and young Mitch Mosshart, playing John Henry, throws away most of his dialogue in a speedy mumble, though he's often good at playing a naughty changeling.
There may be something appropriate in the supporting cast's collective weakness, though; after all, Frankie is in her boat of misery on her own. The one bit of resonant acting comes from the black characters' subplot -- especially in Honey Brown, a friend of Berenice's who's not willing to buckle under to the indignities of Jim Crow, despite the consequences. Emerick makes clear that Frankie aspires to Honey's level of courage; she longingly listens to his plan for escaping, and Omari Williams gives a taut performance as the indignant young black man.
While Main Street's stagecraft is wonderfully consistent, director Rebecca Udden almost always makes the mistake of separating the audience from the action by creating unnecessary scenic barriers. In this case, there's a long section of trellis that juts out into the "yard" with little apparent purpose. Audiences are surprisingly able to believe in a space that actors create with a simple gesture, and directors should trust them to do so, particularly here. This stage isn't, after all, too terribly far away from any audience member.
Primarily because the production lacks a strong actor playing opposite Emerick, the third and final act struggles in bringing the play to the dovetailed closing it deserves. Nonetheless, McCullers's poetry -- less agile than Williams's, it does have a grace all its own -- is not entirely lost in this honest attempt to bring the writer's story to the stage.
Constance Congdon's 1994 play Dog Opera is a perplexing bit of theater. Far from the humble howling that its title suggests, the play combines all the annoying surface elements -- bright, tragically celibate, Shakespeare-savvy New York characters -- that earmarked much off-Broadway fare in the 1980s. And yet despite that slick surface, there's something redeeming about this ugly little play. There's just not enough. Director Rob Bundy has pulled together an exquisitely acted production that, despite its many attributes, left me feeling as though I'd been stood up at the altar.
Almost every American playwright under 50 has written an AIDS play, and while Congdon's Dog Opera may not be directly about the plague, it informs an awful lot of the play's human condition. Primarily, it is a topic that slips in and out of conversations between Madeline and Peter, best friends who share an inability to find the right man. Yes, that means this is a straight girl and gay male friend play, and yes, it means that Congdon's dialogue is, as would logically follow, bright and snappy.
What it also means, at a much less satisfactory level, is that the play doesn't have a heart. Madeline and Peter talk on the phone instead of in person, and even then their communication is fraught with double meaning and isolation -- Congdon's comment, most likely, on the miserable state of human relations. A sense of unbearable loneliness is one element that fills the production: No matter how hard they try, neither Madeline nor Peter can find someone to love as much as they love each other. That Dog Opera doesn't have a story, at least in the traditional sense, to pull all this angst together seems to be part of the point. If it is the point, one expects some alternative provocation -- a sense of anger, perhaps. It never comes.
Pieced together in short and razor-sharp scenes, the play finds Madeline in increasingly desperate dating situations, always resulting in the same blowoff, while Peter attempts to work up an erection alone. It's honest, all right, and perhaps a bit more vulgar than is necessary to drive the misery home: Just how many masturbation jokes can one play handle? Still, Holli Golden is delightfully neurotic as Madeline, and infuses the character with her gift for mischief; she's always able to find solace in a bag of Oreos. And as Peter, Jeffrey Gimble offers up an unabashedly self-involved guy who has a hard time getting out and about.
Playing off the two friends are a variety of double-cast actors, portraying boyfriends, parents and the occasional mystic figure. And commenting on the lousy state of sex and love in the '90s is a teenage street hustler, Jackie, the evening's often precious voice of reason. After a long monologue about the mating lives of insects, Jackie, played economically by Adrian Porter, tells us, "If motels didn't have cable, I wouldn't know any of this, and I'd be happier." The reversal of a potentially sappy metaphor is a pleasant surprise, and one that's characteristic of Congdon's otherwise ungainly style. The actors' ensemble work, especially Connie Cooper's wretchedly comic Bernice and William Hardy as Peter's father, serves as one of the production's most enjoyable strong points.
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But there's no getting over the play's awkwardness.
Often, the less grounded elements of Dog Opera feel forced and ultimately ridiculous. Without explanation (thank god), an Arapaho Indian brave appears during Jackie's monologues, hugging the set's perimeter outfitted in campy braids and a breastplate. As Jackie's monologues get longer, the brave gets bolder, moving in closer to hover over him. Porter is good in fearing the Indian's unseen, godlike presence, but the scenes are too obviously a ploy. And designed to do what? Convince us that these sad people live in a spiritually bankrupt world? It ends up being a clumsy conceit -- one that's almost laughable.
There is some truth, even an inspired understanding of longing, in this play, and perhaps to a greater extent, in this production, but it isn't enough to warrant the work necessary to divine it. To be challenged in terms of form and content is a welcome part of going to the theater, but in the case of Dog Opera, meeting the challenge simply isn't worth the effort.
The Member of the Wedding plays through April 27 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.
Dog Opera plays through April 27 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220.