Tuesday, February 14, 2012

review - The Jacksonian

The Jacksonian
by Beth Henley
directed by Robert Falls
@ The Geffen Playhouse
through March 25                              

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley's latest one-act The Jacksonian is a no-holds-barred look at the decadent middle-class values of the residents of Jackson, Mississippi in 1964. Now in its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, the complicated nature of The Jacksonian may shock or jolt you, but its moody, high on intrigue structure will also keep you fixated from beginning to end.

As in her Crimes of the Heart, Henley keeps The Jacksonian rich in characterization and oft times darkly humorous. Dr. Bill Perch (Ed Harris) and wife Susan (Amy Madigan) have led a supposedly good upper middle class life. He's been a respectable dentist and she's a member of the Garden Club. When she is forced to have a hysterectomy or die, at her husband's call, things change drastically; Susan can't forgive Bill for what he has done to her, and he moves out and into The Jacksonian, a sleazy local motel. It is at this point where the play begins, or rather Christmas, nine months after Perch has moved in. The plot moves back and forth from December to the preceding March, October, September, July and so on, always returning to the events of that December night before Christmas. Also in the story are Fred (Bill Pullman) and Eva (Glenne Headley). Fred's a bartender at the motel and Eva a waitress. Eva wants to marry Fred, but he lies about his health to keep her at bay. A transient, Fred has dark secrets which surface when Bill and Susan's daughter Rosy (Bess Rous) shows up to visit her father.  Over the course of the nine months, she falls victim to Fred's lascivious and strange seduction. Rosy, serving as the narrator of the piece, wanders in and out between scenes wearing a blood-soaked blanket and philosophizes about impending time and how it can affect the outcome of relationships in opposing ways. She is obviously Henley's mouthpiece but at times it is difficult to determine exactly what she is trying to impart. Like her mother, she is victimized by lies and is drawn to men of low-life morality.

We hear about a murder/robbery that occurred at a nearby gas station, which affects Fred, Eva and Rosy and then within the action of the play, there's a grizzly killing within the motel itself. With racism and the KKK looming in the background, the tone of the play is not unlike David Lynch's Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, milder but consistently frenetic and piquing curiosity. Within Perch's sordid activities of  at the motel, there's a sick sense of intriguing humor at play which also keeps the piece riveting, as well as his wife's supposed madness and her gullible reactions to his lurid behavior. No time for boredom, as Henley plays steadily with the characters, transforming them throughout, making us realize we really don't know who they are and what we are witnessing. It's all very surreal, not unlike a horrible nightmare.

Under Robert Falls even direction, the acting is stellar. Harris is a time bomb waiting to explode; Madigan's even-keeled madness, fascinating to behold; Pullman's pulled-in conman is engaging and deviously funny; Headley makes Eva a deliriously delicious slut; Rous's quiet and focused, almost comatose manner is chilling.

One thing about The Jacksonian is clear. You may not always understand what is happening when, but it will undoubtedly leave you thinking and talking days after you've seen it, and that's what good, cutting-edge theatre is all about.

4 out of 5 stars


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