Country Home

Miller, Mississippi begins with a ghost story. The three Miller children, white Mississippians, gather in sister Becky’s bedroom to listen to their black maid, Doris, tell it. There’s a “crying house,” Doris tells them, that’s been empty for hundreds of years. Its walls ooze and weep. It can’t be burned down. While the boys listen to Doris, Becky turns her head and stares at her own wall.

The story both thrills and frightens the children, and it signals to the audience at Long Wharf Theatre’s newest production that we’re in Southern Gothic territory. But we’re someplace else as well: the epicenter of the civil rights movement. Familiar themes à la William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor—a family turning in upon itself, gruesome deaths, the supernatural—become tangled up with political touchstones of the 1960s—James Meredith’s enrollment as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi; the murder of Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The personal and the political are so intertwined that it’s impossible to unravel each cause from its effect. It’s a bit like coming upon a crime scene with multiple victims and not knowing where to look first.

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Miller, Mississippi is the work of playwright Boo Killebrew, named for the Boo of To Kill a Mockingbird fame. Like Harper Lee, Killebrew examines racial tensions in the deep South. Unlike Lee, Killebrew casts her story’s would-be “white savior”—the youngest Miller child, John—as naive and ineffectual. It’s not Doris’s job, she tells him, “to let you do good.” But John will throw himself headlong into the movement anyway. He intends, he tells her, to be “a vessel for progress,” and he takes this role seriously, both inside and outside the family. That mission will continue to drive him as the action of the play moves beyond the ’60s, through the ’70s and into the Reagan era.

“I’m scared,” John tells Doris, his sometime confidante played by Benja Kay Thomas, as he faces a consequence that would frighten anyone. “Well, you can’t be,” Doris replies. Like Doris, John has little choice in the matter of his destiny. When these characters do exercise the choices they have, when they choose to act rather than accept the status quo, the results for both will be devastating.

John is the foil to his older brother, Thomas (Roderick Hill), who also claims to be “doing good” in his mission to preserve the values of their father, a respected judge whose suicide figures into the plot and whose memory Thomas conjures up every time he defends the white Mississippi way of life. But Thomas’s ideas about dominance aren’t just about race. They’re about gender and family, too.

The Miller children’s mother, Mildred (Charlotte Booker), is aligned with him. She’s obsessed with ladylike things—makeup and clothing and comportment—and with keeping her family together and her world unchanged. What others think and say is paramount, a vague playbook by which she lives. But there’s more complexity to her than we first suspect. She has her motives and secrets, too.

There are some heavy-handed moments in Killebrew’s script—reminders of what’s been said or done, just in case we might have missed them—and in Lee Sunday Evans’s direction that slow the pace of the performance. The device of tearing pages off two calendars prominently hung on the living room wall seems unnecessary. We can tell well enough from cultural references, many of them delivered through the television, where we are in history. Dramatic music suggests a Hollywood thriller—arguably fitting to the heightened drama of the Millers’ lives, but at times drawing too much attention to itself.

Nevertheless, every one of the five actors in Miller, Mississippi delivers a strong performance. Particularly impressive is Leah Karpel as Becky Miller, who plays her seesawing role evenly and therefore utterly convincingly. In the play’s most powerful scene, a showdown with her mother, Mildred, is followed by Becky’s consumption of a plate of food in which every stab of the fork is like a word of dialogue. Karpel, Perkins and Hill handle the aging of their characters from childhood to middle age well, but I wish the opening scene didn’t require these adult actors to play children, a device that makes it difficult for them to cast the spell the audience should be falling under.

In the end, the wider metaphorical identity of the “crying house” is revealed. It is Mississippi, the house where, as Doris puts it, “things ain’t changin’.” And we Northerners aren’t allowed any back-patting. We’re reminded, as we listen to Thomas’s final speech, that the haunted house whose walls weep, the house that can’t be destroyed, is our entire nation as well. Miller, Mississippi, isn’t a place divorced from our own. In many ways, it’s just like home.

Miller, Mississippi
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
through February 3
(203) 787-4282
www.longwharf.org/miller-mississippi

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images, provided courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre, photographed by T. Charles Erickson. Image 1 features Benja Kay Thomas, Jacob Perkins, Leah Karpel and Roderick Hill. Image 2 features Perkins, Karpel and Hill.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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