Theater review: Long Wharf's 'Miller, Mississippi' tells epic ghost story

“Miller, Mississippi,” Boo Killebrew’s haunting play about institutionalized racism that officially opened Jan. 9 at Long Wharf Theatre, starts, appropriately enough, with maid Doris repeating an oft-told ghost story to the three, young children. John, 10, hangs on Doris’ every word while Becky, his younger sister, listens quietly and John, the oldest Miller child, lies on the bed stricken with disinterest.

As the African-American Doris, who is also the cook and moral center of the Miller family of Jackson, Mississippi, tells her story, one perceives her purpose in this ritual is not to merely entertain her charges at bedtime with Poe-like diversion, but rather to warn them of the real and present danger of ghosts in the very walls that protected and insulated the Millers during the Jim Crow era — as the play itself travels from 1960 to 1994.

While this seemingly innocent, opening scene unfolds, watch the attentive Becky. As the play settles in and Killebrew discloses the Millers’ inability to keep in stride with the march of time, one realizes that young Becky is by now all too familiar with the family’s demons.

“Miller, Mississippi,” which continues through Feb. 3 at Long Wharf’s Stage II, is an epic ghost story that bravely scrutinizes and regularizes racism, using the fictitious yet palpably real Miller family, whose Baby Boomer progeny grow from adolescence to stone-cold adulthood. To Killebrew, who grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, the ghosts are indistinguishable from the living.

It may even strike some theatergoers that, though under one roof, the Millers are bifurcated, with young, indiscreet John (Jacob Perkins) — the rebellious, impulsive zealot on social progress and racial equality — eager for greener pastures elsewhere. He’d like nothing better than to bring Becky (Leah Karpel) along, as he becomes aware of her victimization at the hands of the very real family ghosts as well as her reluctance to give up with her role in this living, Gothic nightmare. It’s a place in which clocks and calendars are simply set decoration for her, Tom (Roderick Hill) and their frozen mother Mildred (Charlotte Booker). They choose to hang onto vestiges of Jim Crow like an extra from “Titanic” hugging a secured table stem as the ship sinks.

As one observes at the abrupt end of the opening scene, playwright Killebrew deals with a very real problem in macabre and stylized fashion. In the best Southern Gothic tradition, she fantastically exaggerates the action in order for the audience to empathize with her characters. On the other hand, this device lends predictability, as the family members initially seem archetypical.

Since Killebrew chose to set her story over a 34-year stretch, time is short for full exploration. Yet she nonetheless manages to humanize the three children (not poor old Mildred, fossilized in the same chair, looking at the same, ignored televised news program and nursing the same two fingers of Beefeater as if stuck on a 90-second loop).

Hill, Karpel and Perkins have the daunting challenge of playing kids (10-16 years old), a device that can work effectively yet seldom does. Under Lee Sunday Evans’ thoughtful direction, one never loses sight of the fact that adults are behaving like kids even if they are playing at it. Yet, as hinted earlier, the scene ends in such catastrophic madness that it’s over before we have time to mull over the matter. Overall, when all is done, the entire cast works very effectively and truthfully.

If all of this sounds a tad complicated or imaginative, remember that Killebrew exhibits no interest in kitchen-sink realism with “Miller, Mississippi.” This is, after all, a horrific ghost story concerning standardized racism, one that strikes the correct balance of realism and the macabre. It’s scary stuff, which is kind of the idea.

E. Kyle Minor is the Register theater writer.