Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
The action occurs in Jackson, Mississippi, within the home of the Millers. Playwright Killebrew, who was raised in Mississippi, knows the territory well and she presents real, genuine individuals. The play opens with a ghost story, voiced in subdued fashion, by trusted housekeeper Doris Stevenson (Benja Kay Thomas). Portions of the delivery are near monotone and one wonders whether this was a decision made by director Lee Sunday Evans or by the actress.
The family children include an older son, Thomas (Roderick Hill), his younger brother John (Jacob Perkins), and their sister Becky (Leah Karpel) in whose bedroom everyone has gathered. After a time, Mildred Miller (Charlotte Booker), mother of the siblings, announces, with alacrity, that her husband (the children's father) has shot himself to death. That event moves the play forward, but it is not until 40 minutes later that the plotline fully takes hold.
Thomas, carrying around a worn football for a time, wants to be like his dad. Hence, he aims to become both a Southern gentleman and a judge. Thomas is also conservative and a bully. John has a sensitivity to socio-political trends and events. Killebrew punctuates her play (oftentimes with audio emanating from an old television set) with news blasts which, for example, mention James Meredith's attendance at University of Mississippi, Freedom Summer, the death of three SNCC workers fighting for human rights, the demise of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the shooting of Robert Kennedy.
The production is fairly lengthy and the playwright supplies much information to provide context and perspective. It's a lot to take in and assimilate. The proceedings transpire, for the most part, within the interior of the house, and Kristen Robinson's design, including a stairway and upper floor, is nifty. Upon a few occasions, a black curtain is drawn and we are aware that a shift has been made to Doris's place of residence.
Killebrew is at her best with Becky's character. As a teenager, the coming-of-age young woman carries around a sketch pad and demonstrates artistic ability. John encourages her, later, to nurture that talent and leave the area. Becky's life is complicated by Thomas; enough said. She does have choices of direction. There is a complexity created by her personal feelings versus a duty to emerge, in time, as a conventional woman of the house. Her position is not enviable, while her brothers' routes, as provided by Killebrew, are more obvious ones.
The playwright deserves much credit for tackling both racism and misogyny. Not a whole lot changes between 1960 through 1994 in terms of respect or value for either African Americans or women's worth and value. The writer might have taken on too much as she juxtaposes intra-family goings-on with tragic events both in the South and, more broadly, the United States during that epoch. Still, one ponders, in contemporary America, the problem of white supremacy and respect for women in politics.
Ultimately, then, this production (well enacted and directed) zeroes in upon, sad to say, hatred. Killebrew, through the play's canvas, demonstrates this form of anger as predominant even as a promise of love is implied a few times.
While the entirety of this particular work, at this moment, can be frustrating, the young playwright, delving hard into difficulties, raises moving issues which cannot be ducked or avoided.
Miller, Mississippi, through February 3, 2018, at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven CT. For tickets, call the box office at 203-787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.