My daughter sent me back to the drawing board. “Think about what’s driving each character,” she said, after reading my attempt at a play. “What makes this night different from every other night?”
The question gets asked every Passover and for the first time I saw how clearly it sets up the drama reenacted through the ritual meal – the exodus from Egypt, the liberation from slavery.
What makes this night different from every other night? Sometimes it’s a movie. I gave my daughter something it’s taken me years to lay my hands on (since even the most specialized video stores have never carried it), a movie I’d been dying to see ever since reading about it years ago in Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies. I went online, finally, last winter and an outfit in Massachusetts sent me the videocassette in an envelope so carpeted with stamps I kept it. Then another little outfit on Bank Street transferred the video to CD.
“The Member of the Wedding,” made in 1952. Based on the stage version of the incredible novella by Carson McCullers, it has Julie Harris at 26 playing 12-year-old motherless Frankie, and Ethel Waters playing the housekeeper with a glass eye, and Brandon deWilde playing small, doomed John Henry. “The time is the summer,” writes Pauline Kael in that brilliantly incisive way of hers, “when these three characters, who have been clinging to each other, are torn apart.”
My daughter watched it and then we walked over to the tennis club (of which we’re not members) to have a beer on the balcony in the hot summer night and to have the joy of talking over something we both loved. How good the acting was, what a chord the story struck – being 12 and unable to articulate in a way that anyone can understand the confusion inside you. She mentioned the moment when Frankie persuades John Henry (whom she’d sent packing) to come back and sleep over with her in the empty house, and she’s brushing her teeth and has the revelation that she’s always been an “I”, she’s never been a “we”, and how much she wants to be a “we”. My daughter, overcome with feeling but refusing her father’s handkerchief, confessed that she still feels 12 years old. So do I, I said.
The warm summer air, her happiness in the sudden heat, her heart worked upon by a drama that’s sixty years old. Everything that matters came together on that night in June.