Miller, Mississippi opens in Jackson, Mississippi in 1960 around the time of The Freedom Riders and the civil rights movement in the Deep South. Siblings Thomas, John and Becky are listening to their African American housekeeper, Doris (Liz Mikel) tell about a decrepit, haunted house that wouldn’t burn down. They are interrupted by the sound of a gunshot, and mother Mildred appears, with blood on her evening gown. Their father has just shot himself. This sets the pattern: a decent, intelligent, quaint family from the deep South is gradually stripped of their pretensions.
As time passes in the Miller household, we get a feel for the family dynamics. Eldest son Thomas (Alan Organ) is the alpha. Something of a bully, mischievous, but fairly innocuous. Becky (Leah Karpel) is a budding artist, who holds fast to the day she can leave and move to a more cosmopolitan city, like New York or San Francisco. John (Dylan Godwin) is passive, introspective and sweet-natured. Mildred (Sally Nystuen Vahle) is proper, but also warm and congenial. She wants the best for her children but can be domineering; blind to what they really need. Doris is respected and loved, but careful not to overstep.
Just like the rotting house in the ghost story, there is something vile going on in the Miller home. Becky, John and Doris, in their own way (often in secret) try to rise above the complicity and depravity that thrives in their family and the world outside. Thus the Millers become a metaphor for the systemic, pervasive racism of the South. Terrible things are happening and most turn a blind eye. John, the most naive and tender (even more so than his mother) believes that truth and goodness will prevail, while the phrase he hears repeatedly is: That’s just how things are. When Thomas is wailing on John and things escalate, John gets the upper hand by jabbing him in the shoulder with a fork. Instead of asking what would drive such a gentle soul to such extremes, they immediately ship him off to an asylum. This is indicative of the level of tacit collusion and sad resignation that infects the Millers and the culture they inhabit.
This theme of subordination to revered despots, and decadence beneath the veneer of civility can also be found in Dexter’s Paris Trout and McCuller’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. This is difficult material, but playwright Boo Killebrew swings her trapeze over the volcano with precision and grace. (So does this remarkable cast.) The ugly is interwoven with the everyday, the unconscionable tolerated as the price of avoiding the terrifying march of progress. In the skillful hands of Killebrew, what might have been a cliché of Southern Gothic treachery is a measured, fierce, quietly devastating story of the poisoned spirit and sick of heart.
Dallas Theater Center presents Miller, Mississippi, playing through October 1st, 2017. ATTPAC: Wyly Studio Center. AT&T Performing Arts Center: Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. 214-880-0202. 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201. www.DallasTheaterCenter.org