I think I’ll write a play. Hmm, let me see, what can it be about? Well, how about racism and the Civil Rights movement – that’s always a hot topic. But maybe it could be about generational incest, or perhaps homosexuality and AIDs, or maybe I’ll create a portrait of the South in the middle of the 20th century, with so many issues still left unresolved (and just a smidgen of Southern Gothic thrown in for good measure – the Flannery O’Connor thing), or just bring my audience into the lives of the members of a dysfunctional family. So many possibilities. What’s a playwright to do? Well, why choose? Why not deal with all of these topics. That, apparently, is what Boo Killebrew decided to do in writing MILLER, Mississippi, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans. As might be imagined, the results are, at best, mixed.
Spanning some 30 or so years in the life of the Miller family, this somewhat unfocused play attempts to be many things to many people and, as a result, as the person who accompanied me suggested, it is often “tediously entertaining.” That may seem a bit oxymoronic, but it’s apt. The play opens with a bang (literally – Daddy-dearest has shot himself)) followed by the Miller’s housekeeper, Doris (Benja Kay Thomas), telling a story to the three Miller children: Thomas (Roderick Hill), Becky (Leah Karpel), and John (Jacob Perkins). The three actors playing the children do their best to portray adolescents, but their physical appearances belie their purported ages. In any event, it’s a haunted house tale, and it soon becomes apparent that the house in the story is a symbol for the Miller abode, although Killebrew doesn’t make as much of this as she might have.
Essentially aloof from the intimate goings-on in the family is the children’s mother, Mildred (Charlotte Booker), whose parental guidance, fueled by a couple of stiff drinks, consists of bromides and nods to the social mores of mid-century Mississippi; thus it falls to Doris to provide guidance and a certain amount of stability to the children’s lives (think Scout and Jem’s relationship with Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird, although Atticus certainly wasn’t aloof).
The nature of the various familial dysfunctions is slowly revealed over a rather long first act – a lot is implied that will be confirmed in the second act. Given the nature of the play, the actors are required to age, and once their characters reach their maturity the actors seem a lot more comfortable in their roles. It’s Karpel who handles this process the best, for with just a change of hairstyle and a growing slump of the shoulders she is quite believable both as a teenage girl and finally a totally repressed woman who has essentially become a slave to the house.
Whether you resonate with any of the multiple plot lines is probably determined by what you bring to the play. Are you sensitive to racial issues and the continuing struggle for racial equality? Then the play, at moments, will speak to you. Have you ever had to deal with incest, either personally or within a broader family construct? Well, then, there will be moments for you, although John’s explanation for the incest (essentially: “Daddy did it, so I thought it was okay. I was just walking in his footsteps.”) seems a bit lame, and why Becky succumbs and allows the relationships to continue is never really dealt with (that would take an entire play in and of itself). Have you had a parent who was in denial? Well, you’ll respond to Mildred and why she doesn’t do more to protect her children. Are you of Southern heritage? Well, then, the depiction of the Mississippi mind-set will possibly evoke memories.
It’s often difficult to figure out how to end a play, especially with so many narrative strings being interwoven. In the case of MILLER, Mississippi, it’s not clear what we are to think about the final extended scene: Thomas prostrate in a bed, dying of AIDs, while on the television John, a newly elected state senator, proclaims the glories of Mississippi. What’s being said? What’s the point? Evil and mendacity triumph? One might wish that Killibrew had reflected a bit more on how she began the play – that story about the haunted house oozing its evil – and used that to at least bring everything full-circle.
Quite simply, Killibrew puts too much on her play’s plate, so it’s difficult to savor any single offering, and thus, at the end, you might feel over-stuffed and under-satisfied. The basic problem is that causation for this family’s problems is unclear: is it Mississippi and the Southern mind-set (and the fact that many white children were essentially raised by black women)? Or could it be within the family itself, which means the play could just have easily been set in Vermont. Is the evil of racism at the core of the family’s dissolution? The theater’s lobby display is heavy on the history of the Civil Rights movement and the atrocities that occurred during that period, but is that supposed to explain the incest or Thomas’s alienation because of his homosexuality or Mildred’s detachment from her children’s problems? Or can it all be placed at the doorstep of the turbulence and violence the country went through in the three-plus decades the play covers? ‘Tis a puzzlement.
MILLER, Mississippi runs through February 3. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.