Thursday, January 24, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 128, A Review: "Miller, Mississippi" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco
Mildred Miller.
Thomas Miller.
John Miller.
Becky Miller.
Doris Stevenson.

These five characters are the heart and soul of Boo Killebrew's tough, frightening and fascinating Southern Gothic melodrama "Miller, Mississippi," a play that kicks you in the gut and makes your skin crawl as it digs deep to expose the pride, the pathos, the racism, the smut, the dirt, the deceit, the sex and the spilt blood of one white family and their black house keeper living in Jackson, Mississippi.


"Miller, Mississippi" packs an emotional wallop that is fierce, frenzied and insightful. It also handles the angst, pain, fight, attack, craziness and deplorableness of its characters like a mad shrink forced to work overtime while trying to make sense of it all.

Written by Mississippi-born Boo Killebrew, the play deals openly with suicide, prejudice, social change, political upheaval, homosexuality, incest, murder, civil rights, southern family tradition, sibling rivalry, class status, white privilege, secrets, lies, AIDS, economic disparity, family legacy,  marital disintegration, race relations, the breaking of rules, the fear of progression and the cry for freedom.

That, of course, is a lot to digest but Killebrew never lets her audience down as her characters grapple with the dicey ingredients she throws before them. Her dialogue is pungent and resourceful. The scenes themselves stir and fascinate. Danger and deceit lurk everywhere. Truths are exposed like a raging storm at sea. Nothing seems out of place or calculated. And it's all very bloody well interesting. You want edge of the seat entertainment. You'll find it here.

"Miller, Mississippi" is being staged by Obie-winning director Lee Sunday Evans whose directorial credits include "Dance Nation," "Caught," "Macbeth," "A Winter's Tale" and "Bull in a China Shop." Given the complicated, intricate mechanics of Boo Killebrew's play text, this is not an easy play to stage, much less get right as the action runs its course from 1960 through 1994. It takes someone with the knowledge and aptitude of Evans to give it pulse, drive, promise and momentum with nary a creak, a blip or halt in the proceedings.
If at any time the play stops dead in its tracks or the audience stirs or shakes their head in disbelief, than Evans has failed. Luckily, this never happens. Evans, as director, know the puzzle that is "Miller, Mississippi" sideways, backwards, front and center and in between. The groundwork is layed. The pieces are all set and move accordingly. Nothing happens without reason. And no matter how crazy or shocking things get, the audience willingly goes along for the ride never knowing what's around the corner, how it will all play out and how it will all end.

As the play unfolds, the characters rip pages from two strategically placed wall calendars on either side of Kristen Robinson's handsome set that reflects the passage of months, years and decades. Evans orchestrates these time changes with intrigue, purpose, surprise and confidence. She shocks you when she has too. She makes you laugh when the script asks her too. She kicks you in the ass. She slaps with in the face. She makes you gasp or pull back. And, she pisses you off. Then again, that's the point of the piece as the lives and fates of the five principal characters hang in a balance.

The two-act drama stars Charlotte Booker as Mildred Miller, Roderick Hill as Thomas Miller, Leah Karpel as Becky Miller, Jacob Perkins as John Miller and Benja Kay Thomas as Doris Stevenson.
All five actors are perfectly cast and completely in sync with Killebrew's  deft storytelling techniques and Evans sharp, in-your-face direction. They each bring proper dimension, scope, drive, versatility and purpose to their ever-changing characters as time marches on and on. And everyone interacts splendidly with their fellow performers no matter how tangled, crazy or shocking things get.

"Miller, Mississippi" is an accomplished, intelligently written drama that provides a serious, explosive night of deeply moving theatre that is not easily forgotten. It is real. It is raw. It is mad. It is fucked up. Add to the mix five gut-wrenching performances, a grab bag of unexpected plot twists and a quirky, but justified ending guaranteed to leave you emotionally drained. That said, conflict and tension go a very long way.

"Miller, Misspssippi" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through February 3.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 787-4282.

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