Long Wharf’s Miller, Mississippi Is Disappointing

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Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The idea behind Miller, Mississippi now at Long Wharf through Sunday, Feb. 3 is promising.

How does a privileged family adapt or resist the enormous changes in society during the last half of the 20th century? In particular, how does a prominent white family living in small town Mississippi deal with these? The Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, the Counterculture, Homosexuality?  Do their views change? Do they resist? Is there a middle ground?

According to all the press materials, that is the kernel of the idea playwright Boo Killebrew wants to deal with at least according to the press material. It seems as though this was misleading. Somehow along the way, Killibrew has packed this play with so many extraneous issues that the original idea is lost. Instead it becomes almost a Tennessee Williams’ parody: mental illness, incest, suicide and homosexuality cloud the central issue.

So we are left with a melodrama about the Miller family from 1960 through 1994. If that was what we were expecting, we might have enjoyed the production more.

This play was originally given a reading at Long Wharf’s New Works Festival and the theater decided to move forward a full production. According to the notes, “the staff immediately fell in love with this story.” Boo Killibrew is an established playwright she has won numerous awards and had multiple plays produced nationwide.

So it makes it even more bewildering how this play went so off-track and why no one realized it.

One can’t give all the complications of the story. But the main story begins in 1962 with the enrollment of James Meredith at Ole Miss.

The Miller family lives the gentile life of southern gentry. Grandfather built the house and he and the father were both judges. But the father committed suicide (we hear the gun shot), and so the family consists of the mother, Mildred, her three children Thomas, Becky and John and their African-American housekeeper/maid, Doris.

Early on we feel how splintered this family is. Mildred is an old school, Southern belle who clearly believes a woman’s role is to flirt, entice men and marry. She blames outside agitators and a desire to call attention to oneself as the reasons for the civil rights actions.

Thomas, the eldest child is about 17-18 when the real action begins; he has totally absorbed his parents’ views on race, society and culture. With his father dead, he believes it is his duty to protect the family and their culture.

The two younger children, Becky about 14-15 at the beginning and John (12-13) form a team; they seem less contaminated by the family views: Becky would like to be artist and berates Tom for using the N-word, and John is obviously gay.

The housekeeper, Doris, stays silent most of the time though she seems often to back up the mother’s statements and demands.

As the play moves ahead in time (the first act goes to 1966), we are given the benchmarks of the Civil Rights movement: the college students pouring into Mississippi to register voters, the death of the three young students and more. But discussion or even reaction to these events is muted. Thomas goes off to Ole Miss and becomes more determined to “protect our way of life;” Becky is pulled, kicking and screaming into her mother’s view of womanhood, and John meets one of the Northern students and realizes that Doris and her son are housing some of them. The mother seems to do little but drink and call Thomas “angel.” And in true Tennessee Williams fashion, there is a sexual secret.

In the act, there is a ridiculous and horrifying dinner table conversation where the mother goes on and on about how mascara has let those “baby lashes” of Becky emerge and shine. John attacks Thomas with a fork and is sent to a mental institution.

The second half of the play moves ahead very quickly, sometimes too quickly. We return to 1968 to learn that John at some point left the mental hospital, has been on the road and returns home. He finds Becky robot-like and taking care of mother and Thomas; cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, since Doris has left the family.

We fast forward through the mother’s death and learn that Thomas has been married for many years and has children. Becky is obviously mentally ill perhaps due to the strain of taking care of the mother and the house. Yet Thomas wants to move her to an apartment, so he and family can live in the home.

John returns, with long, scraggily hair for Becky’s funeral. The play ends in 1994 with, of all things, the AIDS crisis and John dying of it in the living room.

With all these happenings, there is little time to explore the real adaptation of the family to the events of the outside world; they are all too focused on the dysfunction within the family.

Did Thomas ever begin to doubt his beliefs? Did he moderate his views of race, women and sexuality? Has anything that has happened penetrated his soul? It doesn’t appear so.

Is he the central character in the play or the villain? Becky is the victim and John escapes though at times he clearly wants acceptance from his brother.

Overall the acting is good. Charlotte Booker as the mother truly makes her a woman that most modern women might want to slap; she is oblivious to everything; when we find out she wasn’t totally oblivious, her response is even more chilling. Roderick Hill makes Thomas the self-satisfied prig he obviously is and does not try to make him more sympathetic a character. Jacob Perkins does the best job with John, the youngest child but the one who most clearly sees the world and reality but is at times unable to change either. It is he who has our sympathy.  Leah Karpel has a difficult task with Becky because the character seems more a pawn or symbol than a real live person. It is she who repeats “that’s the way things are here” frequently.

The direction of Lee Sunday Evans attempts to tamp down some of the more over-wrought elements of the plot but it is a difficult task. At times, information or coming events are telegraphed much too clearly.

The set by Kristen Robinson gives us a home that symbolically not only doesn’t change in appearance (same wallpaper) but also slowly destroys itself. It ends up empty.

One question is why this play is being down at Stage II which is more proscenium and has little depth to the stage. It would seem that it would be better suited to the large stage. Plus, the seats in the main stage are much comfortable for a long (two and a half hour) production.

Perhaps if I wasn’t expecting a discussion of a family adapting to threats to their culture and how they dealt with it, I might have found the play more satisfying.

Miller, Mississippi is at Long Wharf Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 3. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

By Karen Isaacs

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com.



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