Curtain Call: The past haunts a Southern family at Long Wharf

Benja Kay Thomas and Jacob Perkins star in Miller, Mississippi running at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. — T. Charles Erickson photo
Benja Kay Thomas and Jacob Perkins star in Miller, Mississippi running at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. — T. Charles Erickson photo

Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven: “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it ... and you’ve lost your true self forever.” The quote is from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it is most appropriate for depicting Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi. Here is a Southern Gothic tale of a prominent family living in the deep South and living in the midst of the Civil Rights era. Don’t think you’ve heard it all and seen it all before because Boo Killebrew is reminding us that the past keeps taking a toll on families with deep-seated problems that always manage to surface. She’s also holding a symbolic mirror up to those clinging to the past and afraid to see that the world is changing.
The play begins with a black maid telling the three Miller children a ghost story about a vacant house that kept getting louder and louder with noise. The children are frightened, but suddenly reality becomes more terrifying when they hear a gunshot coming from the living room. Their father, a judge, has committed suicide, and their mother, dressed in an elegant gown that has been splattered with his blood, informs the children rather matter-of-factly of their father’s demise. The cause of his death is revealed later in the play.

There are two sons who differ in many ways. Thomas, the older son, follows in his father’s footsteps and is a racist through and through. John, the younger son, realizes that times are changing and recognizes how badly “the blacks” have been treated. He becomes an activist. His brother and mother, who take advantage of their black maid, are simply stuck in their ways. The mother has a way of justifying whatever she thinks is right by saying “That’s what they say.” When she is asked, “Who are they?” she can’t offer an answer. Daughter Becky, an artist at heart, finds that she cannot break away from this seriously flawed family. She pays a high price for her decision to remain at home.
Two calendars hanging on a wall keep the audience aware of the passage of time. About three decades pass quickly in this two-hour and 30-minute production.
The acting is excellent. While Charlotte Booker’s character is infuriating because she does not help her daughter, Roderick Hill creates a character we love to hate. Leah Karpel captures Becky as a ruined woman in a man’s world, and Benja Kay Thomas takes on the roles of two black women and endears herself to the audience because of her portrayal of a woman with understanding and heart.
Boo Killebrew has created a play that is bound to stir up emotions. She’s not as poetic as some playwrights, but she does deliver a wallop of show that touches on racism, misogyny, homosexuality and domestic abuse. She also ties up the play as tightly as a ribbon on a gift wrapped bomb. Thomas is talking from the White House as a distinguished Senator. As he is speaking from the White House, the noise keeps getting louder and louder. It gets so loud that it’s downright frightening.
Director Lee Sunday Evans adeptly brings out the playwright’s intent. The audience sees what goes on in a family that not only defines each member, but determines their futures. Daniel Kluger’ s music and sound design is often chilling. Kristen Robinson’s set design is a bit tight since it’s on Stage II and actually uses a curtain to separate action outside of the family’s home. The entire creative team has punctuated the production well.
The play runs through Feb. 3. Box office: 203-787-4282.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: