'The Member of the Wedding' opens at WTF on Sunday

WILLIAMSTOWN — Frankie has just buzzed her hair as short as a Marine. It's a summer weekend in 1945, in the last days of World War II, and she is 12.

She is spending long days in the kitchen with her young cousin, John Henry, and her family's housekeeper, Berenice Sadie Brown, who has raised her. But today, Frankie's brother comes home with his fianc e, and the world changes.

Williamstown Theatre Festival finishes its Mainstage season with Carson McCullers' Southern classic, "The Member of the Wedding."

"It's the summer," said Roslyn Ruff, who plays Berenice. "Kids are out of school. She's in the throes of dealing with kids here with her, in her kitchen. She's a surrogate mom, a friend, entertainment."

But in the world outside this kitchen, threats are building — bombers and razors, passion and rage. As their companion, playfellow and mother figure, Berenice is suddenly struggling to protect them from the harsh, racially motivated injustices lurking just outside their Southern home.

Berenice is anxious about her foster brother, the only family she has left. Frankie calls him Lightfoot and sees him leaving for Harlem as a dancer. He is an intelligent and agile man, too strong to take insults and racial prejudice in silence.

And this weekend cracks the world open.

In her own way, Frankie is also chafing at the roles this town forces on her. She is growing obsessed with the wedding, and she is changing, said Tavi Gevinson, feeling her way through Frankie's crisis. She is growing. She's an inventive, intelligent almost-teenager, and determined and desperate to leave.

"This town can't contain her," Gevinson said.

Her one close friend has moved away, and her imagination expands larger than a few neighbors, chaperoned parties with boys and a dusty patio with a few smashed grapes under the trellis, fermenting in the sun.

She can boss around the younger kids, Gevinson said, and organize them into her elaborate backyard plays, but with the kids her own age she just can't connect. She listens to them playing ball and meeting at a neighborhood club with mothers involved.

But her mother died when she was born.

A sense of exclusion, seems to haunt almost every character. John Henry, her young cousin, almost seems to live in Frankie's kitchen, away from his own family. Frankie's father is a widower, and Berenice has survived her own losses.

"Berenice doesn't like sleeping alone," Ruff said.

She loved her first husband, and he died young, and she keeps searching for that warmth and intimacy.

"She has her own sense of loneliness she's dealing with," Ruff said, "four husbands and a boyfriend later. Some people are like that. I've had friends who will openly admit, I just don't like being alone. One relationship ends and they jump right into the next one."

And here she is trying to make sense of Frankie, who is banging around the room, thin, already tall, with her scabbed elbows and costumes from backyard plays. She is fascinated by soldiers, Gevinson said. Her brother's tour in the army, stationed in Alaska, seemed an unheard of freedom — soldiers travel. They fly. They drop the atom bomb.

She sees soldiers milling around in town and wonders where they are from, and where they are going.

"There's a way to read the play strictly through the lens of identity," she said, but she does not find easy answers in it. Frankie and John Henry may be resisting the definitions they are given of what it means to be a boy or a girl. Frankie may be drawn to the idea of being a boy. She may be a tomboy and enjoy running the way John Henry enjoys bright color and music.

Whoever she is and however she feels, Berenice seems to meet her where she is. Ruff is drawn to Berenice's honesty and how she approaches her relationships with these kids.

"She is honest in her opinion," she said. "It's one of the unsaid rules of the kitchen. It's fascinating and beautiful, the conversations that are on the table in this kitchen. They talk about life, and it gets really raw when Berenice is trying to share what she's learned in the hope it will help Frankie through her own troubled time."

Frankie has heard more about Berenice's first husband, who died young, than she has about her mother, and his loss is in many ways more real to her. She and John Henry talk to Berenice frankly, and she answers them the same way.

"It's why they look to her and enjoy being around her," Ruff said. "She shoots straight with them. Adults can treat children like children, when they bring up something you're not ready to deal with. But the things they're curious about, Berenice just goes there with them, and it's palpable to them.

"If you're lucky enough to have someone like that, you go back to them. You know when it's real or when someone's trying to evade. Especially children, with their curious nature. They know when they've been lied to."

They know, Gevinson agreed, and they come back swinging, willing the world to hear them.

"My boyfriend works with middle and high schoolers," she said. "He was working at a camp with middle schoolers recently, and they had to write journals, and the prompt was what do they wish adults knew about being 12. And one said adults forget that everything you feel when you're 12 is real. You can actually be in love."

No matter the cost, Frankie will make the world recognize that she is real — and in deadly earnest.


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