MILLER, MISSISSIPPIby Boo Killebrew
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Scenic and Video Design by Brett J. Banakis
Costume Design by Karen Perry
Original Music and Sound Design by Daniel Kluger
Lighting Design by Eric Southern
Wig and Make-Up Design by Leah Loukas
Dialect Coaching by Anne Schilling
Fight Coordination by Kelsey Milbourn
CAST (In Alphabetical Order)
John- Dylan Godwin
Becky- Leah Karpel
Doris- Liz Mikel
Thomas- Alex Organ
Mildred - Sally Nystuen Vahle
Reviewed Performance: 9/6/2017
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
For this production, the studio theater on the sixth floor of the Wyly Theater has been configured into a three-quarter, or thrust stage. As you enter the space, an old fashioned television set is playing that most American of pastimes, a baseball game. It’s in black and white, of course, because as two calendars on the back wall tell us, the date is December, 1960 and, we are in Jackson, Mississippi.
The show begins in an upstairs bedroom where three children are listening to their maid tell a scary story about a haunted house. Listen carefully to the story she tells, because it serves as a metaphor for the one we are about to watch. With civil rights firmly in our minds because of time and place, we sense the possibilities of the conflicts to come. Not only is the house haunted.
The maid, Doris, is played by Liz Mikel with her usual calm strength and determined presence. She spends a great deal of the show ironing clothes, but the way she handles that iron is an extension of each scene she’s in. She uses it as expressively as she uses her wonderfully mobile face. She is the rock at the center of this family and you believe every second of her performance. She makes her character’s journey in the play’s perilous time and place one we watch with fascination and understanding.
The three children are played by Alex Organ as the oldest son, Leah Karpel as the daughter and Dylan Godwin as the youngest son. In the structure of this play, we spend the years between 1960 and 1994 with this family, and the actors portray the siblings from pre-teen to middle age, never faltering, and growing before our eyes, developing their characters in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that engage and fascinate us.
Alex Organ is Thomas, the eldest, and the one who takes “making everything right,” and “saving our way of life” to heart as he grows older, determined to maintain the traditions of a South being battered by the winds of change and progress. His is a complex character, one that could become a caricature, but thanks to Mr. Organ’s skill and deep insight, we find ourselves, despite the anger and despicable acts, trying to understand this man. As are all the actors, he is ever focused on the moment, engaged and clear as to his objectives in the scene. It’s a beautifully developed piece of work, turning what could have been all dark and dangerous into something much more interesting and believable, even if his emotional response and explanations for his actions as presently scripted don’t quite feel thoroughly developed yet.
Leah Karpel gives a wonderfully layered performance as Becky, the daughter of the house. Her relationships to each of the other characters is particularized and clearly drawn. She manages to be open and loving and at the same time closed and withdrawn. As the reasons for her actions become apparent, we see the complex woman struggling within and her descent to her final scene is devastating. Torn between being the perfect daughter, debutante and Southern young lady, and the artist struggling to make sense of her life, gives Ms. Karpel rich material and she mines it with abandon.
Coiled tight as a spring, energy sparking in every direction, Dylan Godwin plays John, the youngest, with the emotions coming naturally from his clear intentions. His character’s journey is a long and ultimately sad one, filled with unexpected actions and revelations. To Mr. Godwin’s credit, although he comes dangerously close sometimes to too much physical and vocal activity, we follow his journey with compassion and understanding. His vision of the role is clearly deeply drawn and focused. There is deep tragedy hiding underneath.
Sally Nystuen Vahle plays the matriarch of the family, Mildred, with a commitment and focus so intense, you forget you’re watching an actor, and become mesmerized by the character. Pitching her voice in a higher, lighter range than is usual, she embodies the Southern wife of the era. Her demeanor, her deportment, the hair, nails, and even her posture are right out of a documentary. She then begins to show us the crumbling substructure under this monument, and as with the fall of all icons, the result is devastating. Some actors struggle with communicating subtext. Watching Ms. Vahle is a master’s class in illuminating layers of character.
Brett J. Banakis is responsible for the scenery that manage to evoke the period even in its sparseness with well-chosen details like the brown/gray carpet, the paneling, wallpaper, and overall “feel” of the residence. The large diagonal structure at the back of the set hints at the conflict to come. He is also responsible for the video design. The show begins and ends with the television set giving us profoundly contrasting images of America. Original music and sound design by Daniel Kluger are effectively used to heighten the moments and the lighting design by Eric Southern is effective without being flashy, illuminating and accentuating emotional beats as they occur.
Costume Designer Karen Perry is tasked with carrying us through the sixties, seventies, eighties and early nineties with a large range of costumes. To her credit she does it with choices that look like clothing, not costumes, that clearly expand on the character’s lives both inner and what they choose to show the world. The sheer number of costumes is impressive. Wig and makeup work by Leah Loukas is picture-perfect and suitable to the role, with touches like the mother-daughter look-alike hair in the scene where Becky has been persuaded to let her mother choose her attire.
Director Lee Sunday Evans has crafted a punch-you-in-the-gut emotional powerhouse. She moves her actors around the thrust stage with assurance and precision, never letting the audience wonder where the focus should be, yet keeping it spontaneous and interesting to watch. Moments build and her actors always seem to be sure of their purpose for being in the scene. Ms. Evans doesn’t shy away from the tough issues raised, but neither does she let the tender moments slip by either. In all, a wonderfully tight, clear, incisive presentation.
Boo Killebrew’s script is so timely that you’d think she wrote overnight. Indeed, the problems she deals with and the conflicts she presents for our contemplation are sadly, just as relevant in today’s America as they were in the past. And not just in the South. Her dialogue rings true and of-a-piece with each character speaking with a voice that not only sounds individual, but manages to often reveal more than just the words being spoken. Dialect coach Anne Schilling wisely doesn’t go for a sitcom “Southern redneck” sound, but let’s Ms. Killebrew’s writing set the time and place with gems like, “Come here and let me hug your neck!” If the older brother’s justification for his white supremacist actions don’t quite feel fleshed out at this point, perhaps those who ARE white supremacists couldn’t give a clear indication of why they hold those views, and generally, in my experience, have no desire to justify them in any case.
Perhaps stories about haunted houses are so frightening because a “house” is supposed to be a “home.” If that house is NOT a home, and the voices coming from the walls are frightening instead of comforting, and if the place is burning, the one safe place we want to hold on to is taken from us. Cries of “Don’t do it!” and “Don’t you dare go in there!” can be hard to heed. Sometimes we run into the burning house anyway, hoping to hear an explanation from the voices screaming and moaning from the walls. Sometimes we need the fire to burn up the fear, and the “rules,” and the sins of the fathers, even if the house left smoldering is haunted.
The play begins with the television set showing the World Series, and ends with the television set showing the American flag. See the show to find out why the difference between the two images is so profound.
Join the Miller, Mississippi family in their house/home for an evening of tough questions, some soul searching, and yes, glimpses of love that make the time spent with them an evening you won’t soon forget. Just try not to get burned.
Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, Studio Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Dallas, TX 75201
Runs through Oct. 1
Admission $20 - $101, subject to change
Box Office Phone (214) 880-0202