Theater review: 'The Jacksonian' at Geffen Playhouse
In “Crimes of the Heart,” playwright Beth Henley wrung laughs from suicide, with a report of a mother who killed herself alongside her precious kitty and a scene with a grown daughter so mired in scandal that she sticks her head in the oven as though it were a Bundt cake.
Well, that’s nothing compared with the outrageous goings-on in Henley’s latest play, “The Jacksonian,” which is receiving its world premiere in a Geffen Playhouse production featuring Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Bill Pullman at their creepy-comic best. This black comedy, set in Jackson, Miss., in the tinderbox year of 1964, proudly waves its Southern Gothic flag. You know you’re deep in Flannery O’Connor country when the quotidian merges with the grotesque and genteel manners are accompanied by a fist in the face.
Henley, like all good practitioners of the Southern Gothic genre, observes the bizarre customs of her characters without much editorial commentary. (No need for a soapbox with behavior this self-incriminating.) In setting the work in her birthplace during a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, the playwright gets to sift through sepia-tinged memories and examine the pretense of normality in white folks’ lives as churches were burned and black people were lynched. Yet she’s also fabricating a farfetched story that’s as eccentrically stylized as any by David Lynch.
A shadowy, small-scale work that’s determined to stay one step ahead of the audience (and possibly even the author), “The Jacksonian” is masterfully staged by Robert Falls, the Tony-winning artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. His production doesn’t attempt to neatly sort out a tale that still seems a bit unsettled. Instead, it luxuriates in the ripe outlandishness of characters whose flamboyant theatricality and curveball humor are always engaging even when completely baffling.
Pockmarked young Rosy (a captivatingly sullen Bess Rous, who’s amusingly older than the character) introduces us to the strange world of the Jacksonian Motel. Wrapped in a bloodstained blanket, this odd girl, as observant as she is naive, tries to remember the events of a certain night when a horrible “accident” occurred. If she seems a bit sketchy about the details, it may be because this is one of those moments when, in her own words, “time quakes.” The Jacksonian, it soon becomes clear, isn’t just on the outskirts of the city — it’s the final outpost of a way of a life that has entered its death throes.
Harris, tonally perfect as ever, plays Rosy’s father, Bill Perch. A dentist with marriage problems and a slightly sinister white-collar demeanor, he’s taken a room at the motel after a fight with his wife, Susan (played with delectable neurotic panache by Harris’ real-life wife, Madigan). Rosy brings him a mini Christmas tree and a few decorations, which have been sent by her mother, who doesn’t want him returning for the holiday. He assumes the situation is temporary, but months have already passed and his wife, who blames him for her hysterectomy, is only growing more overwrought.
“My parents will never divorce,” Rosy tells Eva White (Glenne Headly), a man-hungry motel worker desperate to snag a fellow employee or a guest for a husband. “People who are nice don’t do that. Only trashy people do that, or movie stars who are rich, trashy people.”
Divorce really shouldn’t be at the top of Rosy’s worries. She’s caught the ogling attention of Fred Weber (Bill Pullman transforming himself into a humorously macabre Charles Addams cartoon), the motel bartender with a felonious secret. Her father is getting high on dental anesthetic while messing around with game-for-anything Eva. And her mother’s marital wrath escalates to a dangerous confrontation that will reveal things about Bill that can’t be forgotten after they've been exposed.
As the latent violence becomes increasingly explicit, the raucous energy of Henley’s comedy goes into overdrive. While not much explanatory light is offered, the play feeds on its own dizzying momentum, and no one in Falls’ adroit cast has the slightest trouble in keeping pace with the sordid shenanigans. (Headly’s salty Eva, stampeding about with piled-high blond hair, has a vivacity that would be utterly terrifying were it not so hilarious.)
These characters are too real for a fun house yet too concentrated for ordinary life. The stage is where they belong, and it’s entrancing the way they spring into action on Walt Spangler’s haunted motel set. (Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting, Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes and Richard Woodbury’s compositions and sound design intensify the ghostly atmosphere of this two-star earthly limbo.)
The elusiveness of “The Jacksonian” can be frustrating. You’d like the historical background noise (the news of racist backlash and KKK-stoked chaos) to mesh with the main debauchery of the play and suspect that if the work slowed down just a tad, you might have a chance of connecting the dots that Henley leaves floating about like bewildered orphans.
In the meantime, there are five wildly original performances to dazzle and darken your imagination. They’re an extreme group, but under Falls’ peerless guidance, they blend together in that unhinged Southern way that is Beth Henley’s specialty.
'The Jacksonian,’ Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, LA. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 25. $94 - $139. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Photos: Upper: Bess Rous and Ed Harris Lower: Bill Pullman, left, plays Fred Weber and Glenne Headly. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times