The Jacksonian

by Cory Conley · November 8, 2013

Playwrights on New Plays #15Cory Conley looks at the New Group's production of The Jacksonian playing at the Acorn Theatre

Rosy, the narrator of Beth Henley's new play The Jacksonian, is an acne-faced sixteen year-old girl who wears pajamas and is often wrapped in a blanket. When she speaks directly to us, the audience, it's usually in the most bracing and urgent of tones, warning of murder and mayhem ahead. Her message is so frightening that it inspires what is surely among the most ambitious stage directions ever written: Henley suggests that Rosy's "terror and will quake the landscape of the time, space and memory."

That doesn't quite happen in this slight but crafty production, which features a star-studded cast and a seductive air of Southern 1960's dread. But Rosy has plenty of reasons to be nervous. Her dad, a respected Mississippi dentist named Bill Perch, recently moved into the faded Jacksonian motel after a series of unfortunate blowups with his wife, Susan, and some at first unspecified professional troubles. Meanwhile, Eva White, the boozy, Christian motel maid, has her sights set on Bill, flirting her way into his room and grilling him for dirt on his broken marriage. This is all in spite of Eva's engagement to the motel's bartender Fred Weber, a sketchy, brooding soul who may or may not be dying from a bad heart.

Someone is indeed on their way to being murdered. And actually, when the story begins in May 1964, someone else already has been: a lady cashier at the local Texaco station, shot and killed in a holdup. Although there isn't a shred of evidence against him, the prime suspect is a seventy year-old glaucoma patient who just happens to be black. Eva had to testify about it, and she's taken a peculiar interest in seeing the "colored man" lynched. Against this backdrop of racism, violence, and domestic unease sits the Jacksonian, where a new, pre-Christmas killing is about to take place.

Except for Rosy, everyone on stage exudes a healthy dose of suspicion (and suspiciousness.) Someone's guilty, or maybe they all are, in their desperate and largely futile search for meaning and redemption. As usual, Henley's script is saturated with the darkest of dark wit--- from Rosy's casual assurance to Eva that "nobody is ever going to marry you" to Fred's attempt, in an act of seduction, at swallowing a knife. All the adults are preoccupied with "going somewhere," but much like the motel, it seems the only direction for them to go is down.

The play's eighty-five minutes clip along with ease, guided by director Robert Falls, though it would take a more astute viewer than me to always keep track of the non-linear timeline. You can almost taste the gleeful fun the actors are having, with Ed Harris in full "Jekyll-and-Hyde" mode as Bill the dentist, and Glenne Headly equally relishing her turn as the troubled Eva. Harris's real-life wife Amy Madigan is fine as Susan, while Bill Pullman's comic touches as Fred sometimes feel more calculated.

If there's a weak link, it's the over-the-top, hyper-theatrical narration provided by Rosy. Newcomer actress Juliet Brett meets the intensity of the language, but much of the imagery ("The swamp is coming to cover us all... I don't let time go but it does") feels like an unwanted interruption of a much earthier story about flawed and fascinating people on the margins.

In Henley's world, life is an unholy mixture of ambition and compromise, even when death comes knocking. "I'm the one who is dying," yells Fred in the first scene, after explaining to Eva that, due to his failing heart, he can't marry her. By the end of the play, you'll understand all too well her angry reply: "At least you're going somewhere."





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