Long Wharf Theatre
Long Wharf Theatre is currently presenting an entirely professional production of “Miller, Mississippi,” Boo Killebrew’s deeply unpleasant and somewhat misguided play. Featuring a skillful cast of five actors, “Miller, Mississippi” starts off promisingly in the first act before taking a disastrous wrong turn in the second half. The play is set in Jackson, Mississippi, primarily during the 1960s, but stretching to 1994, and examines race relations and other assorted problems that exist within one family.
On Kristen Robinson’s good-looking, two level set of a house, “Miller, Mississippi” manages to get all the details right within the various time periods that are shown, but, unfortunately, the play collapses a bit by the conclusion. The direction by Lee Sunday Evans is as good as can be expected, and the acting pretty much first-rate, but there is only so much that can camouflage some of the weaknesses in the writing. This is a shame, because “Miller, Mississippi” at Long Wharf Theatre displays so many assets at the outset, but cannot fulfill on that promise by the end of the show.
To get to what works well in “Miller, Mississippi,” one only has to look at the excellent cast that has been assembled. As the matriarch of the family, Mildred Miller, Charlotte Booker is just about perfect as a genteel Southern woman of the 1960s. Booker manages to stand out quite a bit in her role and is entirely believable as a mother who runs her house the way she sees fit. Thanks also to Dana Botez’s precise period costume design, this actress is able to endow her character with a whole array of emotions, sometimes all at once, ultimately revealing that Mildred is much wiser than one might at first think.
Playing the African-American housekeeper to the family, Doris, Benja Kay Thomas brings a great deal of strength and stature to her part and makes an equally powerful impression in the play. “Miller, Mississippi,” at first, primarily focuses on the changing climate of civil rights and Thomas is successful at showing exactly where her character fits in within the society of that time. Doris’ maternal nature is prominent and all-encompassing and she makes as profound an impression on the three children in the family as Mildred does.
In the sympathetic role of John, one of the sons in the play, Jacob Perkins is believable as a young man who is trying to figure out his place in the world, realizing that he is different from his more “straight-arrow” older brother, Thomas. Playing Thomas, Roderick Hill comes off as deceptively pleasant and forthright on the surface, masking the rather evil and dangerous nature of his character. Finally, as the troubled daughter in the family, Becky, Leah Karpel is heartbreaking, especially in the scenes where her mother tries (unsuccessfully) to turn her into a debutante. It must be stated that the three performers playing the children in the family all believably seem to “grow up” and change during the course of the play.
It is unfortunate to mention that the cast and the production are more successful than the play itself. If the playwright makes some convincing and interesting points involving race during the superior first act of “Miller, Mississippi,” things pretty much fall apart after intermission. Such insidious topics as incest and molestation aren’t fully explored and even some of the dialogue comes off as unconvincing. It is only the strength of the acting that keeps one attentive during the disappointing second act and, even then, that quality can only go so far.
“Miller, Mississippi” at Long Wharf Theatre can be identified as an entirely top-notch production of a play that is only about as half as successful as one would hope it to be. As mentioned, the performances by this faultless cast are pretty much superb, even as the show, unfortunately, fails to do them justice. The staging by director Lee Sunday Evans keeps the show afloat as much as possible, but “Miller, Mississippi” ultimately can be best described as something of a missed opportunity: it begins with great deal of promise, but, in the final analysis, is unable to follow-through on that potential.
“Miller, Mississippi” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through February 3, 2019. For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
Photo: (L-R): Leah Karpel, Charlotte Booker, Roderick Hill, and Jacob Perkins
Photo by T. Charles Erickson