Does every contemporary playwright want to write their own “Glass Menagerie”? The latest Tennessee Williams wannabe might be Boo Killebrew whose Southern Gothic drama, “MILLER, Mississippi”, is currently on stage at the Long Wharf Theatre. Echoes of Williams’ masterpiece can be heard here and there throughout this new play set in the Deep South and covering the years 1960 through 1994. The two playwrights, however, will never be confused with each other.
“MILLER, Mississippi” begins with the telling of a ghost story quickly interrupted by an off-stage suicide. The Miller family has a long history in Jackson, Mississippi and the suicide of their patriarch is only the beginning of a laundry list of domestic ills straight out of dysfunction junction. The family is headed by mother Mildred (Charlotte Booker channeling her best Amanda Wingfield impersonation) in deep denial about the skeletons in her family closet as she goads her fragile daughter, Becky (Leah Karpel), to take part in Jackson’s annual debutante ball. Oldest son Thomas (Roderick Hill) feels the need to fill daddy’s shoes in the most perverse way possible and youngest brother, John (Jacob Perkins), is secretly working with the Freedom Ryders who have just started their historic campaign in Jackson.
The Civil Rights era has numerous important stories to tell, so there’s something slightly insulting about a play that uses racial history only to tell the bigger story here of a white family’s dysfunction. While lip service is paid to the three young Freedom Riders who were murdered in 1961, Killebrew seems far more interested in exploring southern privilege, alcoholism, incest, pedophilia, suicide, homelessness and AIDs. Over thirty years passes (slowly) in the drama, but it all rarely rises to the level of poetry Mr. Williams brought to “Menagerie”. Even the crucial character of the African-American maid Doris (Benja Kay Thomas) is given short shrift in a confused, under-written role that ultimately remains more symbol than character.
Under Lee Sunday Evans’ languid direction, the actors are allowed far too much leniency with exaggerated southern accents and broad characterizations. The cast doesn’t often escape the limitations of the writing and many seem adrift here with characters that are stereotypes, seldom real or relatable. Evans, apparently, also made the decision to utilize two wall calendars on the set which indicate the passage of time as actors are called upon to rip off various months. This device, not seen since RKO was making movies in the 1940s, also alerts audiences to the fact that by intermission there is still another twenty or so years to cover. And a long sequence in act two, where John diligently removes dozens of drawings taped all over the house, kept the audience in stunned silence. As directed, the scene goes on and on. The two and a half hour running time does not pass quickly.
Long Wharf’s intimate Stage II is not an ideal venue for Kristen Robinson’s set which is supposed to not only represent a grand southern home, but Doris’ front porch and, most oddly, an open grave site (set in the living room). Daniel Kluger’s insistent score throughout the play also hammers home any feeling Evans wishes us to experience. In all, “MILLER, Mississippi” is not a subtle work.
“MILLER, Mississippi” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New haven through February 3. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.