Monday, December 2, 2013

Southern Gothic: Beth Henley's The Jacksonian

The plot of Beth Henley's new play The Jacksonian, set in a motel in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964, is so crammed with incident that it feels a little like a flea market for ideas left over from other plays she hasn’t got around to writing. The main character, Bill Perch (Ed Harris), is a dentist with a taste for his own nitrous oxide and a lackadaisical practice. He’s living at the Jackson while he tries to patch things up with his wife Susan (Amy Madigan), who threw him out for beating her up – hurting her “more than usual,” according to their adolescent daughter Rosy (Juliet Brett) – though Susan’s paranoia where Bill’s concerned mostly stems from his having allowed the doctor to perform a hysterectomy when she was discovered to have an ovarian cyst. Rosy, who narrates the story, is a highly imaginative teenager who ferries back and forth between her parents and campaigns against their getting a divorce. Bill is an object of romantic interest to a motel chambermaid named Eva White (Glenne Headly) when the bartender, Fred Weber (Bill Pullman), calls off their engagement: she wants someone to marry her. She’s miffed that it can’t be Fred, since she gave false testimony to alibi him for a convenience store robbery and murder for which an innocent black man is sitting on death row. But then, she doesn’t think too much of African Americans; she’s rabidly anti-integration, unlike Bill, who deplores his father’s politics (he’s a Klansman) but, out of necessity, continues to live off his checks.

That’s a lot of narrative for a ninety-minute play, which also has a flashback structure that I couldn’t quite work out. But I don’t think all these complications amount to much, though as usual in Henley’s plays there are patches of colorful writing that don’t sound like anyone else’s. Fred protests that he can’t marry Eva because he has a “decayed” heart that’s bound to lay down on him sooner or later: “Set your sights on the living,” he advises her. Later he admits to Rosy that he lied about his medical condition to get out of marrying a woman who “smells like broken-down crayons.” Bill’s profession is a hilarious running gag – not only because of his recreational use of nitrous (which turns out to be rather ghoulish) but mostly because of the way he begins every conversation by inquiring about his listener’s teeth: he’s always trolling for patients. (Eventually he has to stop practicing dentistry when – no doubt working out his anger at his dad – he extracts all the teeth of one unlucky bastard who makes the mistake of boasting about his role in the burning of a Negro church.) The style is southern Gothic enhanced by Henley’s distinctive comic oddness.

Juliet Brett & Ed Harris
The New Group production at New York’s Theater Row, directed by Robert Falls, is better than the play itself. It has a dream cast. Harris works so steadily in the movies that he doesn’t often get a chance to show off his remarkable stage technique (he was trained as a stage actor). And he’s mesmerizing, especially in Bill’s final scenes, where he’s sloshed and high and his face looks skeletal, as if he’d crossed the line into some other, haunted sphere. It’s a treat to see him partner two first-rate actresses, Madigan (whom he’s married to in real life) and Headly, who have different but matching idiosyncratic styles. Pullman, with slicked-back hair and sideburns, holds his face very still while he rocks back and forth on his pins, and his vocal placement is so tight that he sometimes sounds like he’s choking himself: his Fred is a man who’s uncomfortable in his own skin. The character is something of a monster (in one scene he asks Rosy, a sixteen-year-old who acts about thirteen, for sexual favors) but Pullman – following Henley’s lead – plays him comically. Pullman has always been a versatile performer, but I’ve never seen him try anything quite like this before. The one unknown in the cast, Juliet Brett, is a talented actress whose lyrical intensity is reminiscent of the young Amanda Plummer. If T.A.C.T. or one of the other New York companies dedicated to resurrecting long-dormant American plays had a hankering to revive Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, Brett might be ideal in the role of Frankie Addams.

The Jacksonian may not be a very good play, but we all know that there are other reasons to go to the theatre. The excitement of watching Ed Harris live justifies the excursion, and he’s only one of five exceptional actors on the same stage. I’d say this is one of the highlights of the current New York season.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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