Review: “Miller, Mississippi” at Long Wharf Theatre

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  • Noah Golden, Associate Connecticut Critic

Long Wharf Theatre’s latest, the beguiling and enigmatic “Miller, Mississippi,” begins with a ghost story. Doris (Benja Kay Thomas), a Black maid in 1960s Jackson, is recounting a tale right out of Shirley Jackson. There’s a house in town, she tells the three rapturous kids at her knee, that emanates the sound of a crying child from within its very walls, like something (or someone) was trapped inside. There’s also talk that blood has been known to seep out of the floorboards. A group of hooligan boys once tried to burn it to the ground, but despite their torches and gasoline, the house refused to be leveled.

“Miller, Mississippi” doesn’t have a moment of the supernatural in it, but Boo Killebrew’s exploration of deep-seated institutional racism is as much a ghost story as “The Haunting Of Hill House.” The spirits here aren’t seen, but they’re felt in every moment. Like all good ghost stories, “Miller” is a parable and an effective one at that, even if it sometimes feels more like a literary exercise than a well-observed drama. But Killebrew isn’t going for realism or even creating lifelike characters; the aim is broader and more fascinating. She is peeling back the bandage and observing the self-perpetuating roots of the racist, deep South through the lens of one family.

Over the course of two-and-a-half-hours, we will follow the Miller family from 1960 to 1994, although a bulk of the story takes place in that first decade. Then, matriarch Mildred (Charlotte Booker) must raise her three children alone after her husband, a conservative and bigoted judge, shoots himself after being confronted with a shameful, illicit secret. A portrait of him, stern and commanding, hangs illuminated on Kristen Robinson’s two-story set, keeping watch even after death. While youngest son John (Jacob Perkins) rebels against his late father’s ways – even volunteering to help fight segregation laws – older brother Thomas (Roderick Hill) seems to be growing more like his dad every day. Caught in the middle is daughter Becky (Leah Karpel), a fragile girl with a talent for sketching and a festering dark secret of her own. When her mother describes the pure, white dress she is to wear for an upcoming cotillion dance, a painful wince washes over Becky’s face. By that point, we know exactly why.

Killebrew is playing with types here, especially in the first act. Thomas is a violent racist; John is open-minded, sensitive and queer (seemingly in both uses of the term); Becky is not so far off from Laura Wingfield, another wounded would-be debutante. The most noticeable archetype is Mildred, who is as sharp-tongued, vain and prejudice as any character from Eugene O’Neil or Tennessee Williams. Viewers of the recent HBO mini-series “Sharp Objects” will draw immediate comparison to Patricia Clarkson’s Adora.

Throughout the first act, it’s easy to feel like we’re getting bargain-bin southern gothic. The accents are a little too exaggerated and the characters are all a little one-note. But notice Lee Sunday Evans’ beautifully stylized blocking or Daniel Kluger’s creepy, plinking score that’s more “Get Out” than “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” Notice the steely glint in Doris’ eyes or the careful way Mildred interacts with Thomas. To misquote The Bard, something is definitely rotten in the state of Mississippi.

As the pages of the Miller family’s calendar get ripped off during each time-jump, Killebrew’s style matures with the characters. Things in adulthood are never as black-and-white as they appear in adolescence and the play only grows richer, darker and more realistic with each passing year. During the run-time, some characters die and others transform from innocent children to troubled adults, but their house, much like the old mansion in Doris’ ghost story, remains unchanged since the Miller’s great-grandfather built it generations ago. Kristen Robinson’s realistic yet sparse set (lit expertly by Amith Chandrashaker), looms large over the whole production. Long Wharf wisely chose to stage “Miller” in its smaller, Stage II black box theater and so the actors are rarely more than a few paces away from the front row. You can even see the working TV set, which frequently grounds the play with news footage of a recent lynching or Martin Luther King Jr’s death. The whole thing is intimate and a bit alarming, which is exactly the point.

I won’t detail the rest of the plot as it twists and turns through the decades. The reveals and revelations are a thrilling and heartbreaking part of the play, so I, like many of “Miller’s” characters will choose to shut my mouth in the face of unpleasantness. Killebrew is playing with big themes here – death, sexual abuse, mental illness, alcoholism, segregation, the white savior complex and even the seeds of modern politics – and does so with panache, if not subtly.

It’s soapy, sure, and I can image more than a few viewers being turned off by the histrionics, but if you buy into “Miller” as a genre exercise and a parable, it can be a captivating watch. The cast is uniformly terrific, deftly transforming their characters through various stages of life; although Thomas and Karpel are the true stand-outs, delivering complex and touching performances that will stay with me long after the curtain. They’re extraordinarily well-orchestrated by director Evans, whose staging is clean and full of creative little touches from the ingenious scene changes to the pure black curtain that sweeps across the stage whenever John visits Doris at the negro part of town. We see the scary, segregated neighborhood the way John does, as an inky black hole of mystery. Another beautiful moment involves the staging of a burial that is both haunting and gorgeous.

Actually, that’s a pretty good way to describe all of “Miller, Mississippi.” Killebrew wrote a bulk of the play during the Obama era, but it seems startlingly relevant at this perilous moment. Going to see this bourbon-soaked southern drama while MAGA hat wearing teenagers and representative Steve King are in the news makes the effect even more unsettling. Back at the beginning of the play, when Doris is recounting the ghost story, she’s interrupted by Thomas who wants to take over the narrative. “It’s not my story,” she tells him, “I just know it.” The play isn’t my tale either; I’m not from a line of Southern politicians, my life hasn’t been marred by violence and abuse. But I now know the story too and, like Doris, it seems my duty to pass it along. It may not stop the crying from within the house, but with each telling and each pair of attentive ears, maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn how to listen to what the voice is trying to say.

 

“Miller, Mississippi” by Boo Killebrew runs through February 3 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT. The cast includes: Charlotte Booker (Mildred Miller), Roderick Hill (Thomas Miller), Leah Karpel (Becky Miller), Jacob Perkins (John Miller) and Benja Kay Thomas (Doris Stevenson/Ruby). The creative team includes: Lee Sunday Evans (director), Kristen Robinson (set design), Oana Botez (costume design), Amith Chandrashaker (lighting design), Daniel Kluger (music & sound design), Paul Lieber (video design), Brett Banakis (original content video design), Dave Bova (wig & makeup design), Chantal Jean-Pierre (dialect coach), Greg Webster (fight director), Brett Anders (production stage manager) and Calleri Casting (casting). Photos by T. Charles Erickson.