“The Jacksonian” by Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) is the second play debuting in New York this season to feature a murder taking place in Mississippi. The first, A Time To Kill, based on Mississippi resident John Grisham’ s novel, just announced it is closing November 17th less than a month after it opened on Broadway. “The Jacksonian” is also the second play starring a married couple well known for their separate screen roles – in this case Ed Harris and Amy Madigan — portraying an unhappily married couple. “Betrayal,” a revival of Harold Pinter’s drama that stars Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, is breaking box office records.
But Beth Henley’s play, produced by The New Group and set for a limited run through December 22 at Theatre Row, is the first this season – and in memory – to mix unhinged Southern Gothic, film noir, Pinteresque inscrutability and the kind of macabre humor favored equally by Tracy Letts, David Lynch and the Addams Family. There is a playfulness to “The Jacksonian,” despite the violence of its characters and the overt menace of its time and place, 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi, with its casual chatter about lynchings and church bombings. “The Jacksonian” plays with time; it plays with our perceptions (and with our comprehension); it is often over-the-top ugly; and just as often mesmerizing, thanks to the direction by Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, and the stellar five-member cast.
At its start, in the first of 12 scenes over 85 intermission-less minutes, we see a man (Ed Harris) come out to the hallway of The Jacksonian, a run-down motel, to get some ice – with blood stained on his shirt. Then a teenage girl named Rosy (Juliet Brett) comes out wrapped in a blanket, looks at us blankly and says numbly:
“There’s been an accident there’s going to be I need to stop an accident at the motel,” and eventually in her ramblings sets the time – It’s “before Christmas.” It’s “Before a time that makes the time of murder.”
So the audience is told that there’s been – or will be — a murder. We just don’t know who has been murdered, nor the identity of the murderer.
This is not, however, anything as straightforward as a murder mystery. The play does not offer a linear chronology; it slinks in and out of time, letting us get to know the five characters.
There is talk of a gas station robbery, in which the female cashier was murdered. A black man has been arrested for the crime. But Eva, a fervently religious floozy of a racist waitress and maid (Glenne Headley) at the Jacksonian, talks about going to court to provide an alibi for Fred, the bartender to whom she is engaged (a nearly unrecognizable Bill Pullman). For his part, Fred is so uninterested in matrimony that he tells Eva he’s dying, just to get out of it. (“I can’t marry Eva,” he confides to Rosy. “She smells like crayons in a dirty room.”) That turns out to be red herring – or is it?
In any case, the focus shifts to Rosy’s parents — Dr. Bill Perch, a dentist (Harris), and his wife Susan (Amy Madigan), from whom he is estranged, which is why he is staying at this motel. Their daughter visits around Christmas time with a little metal Christmas tree, to add holiday cheer. It doesn’t help. At first, Bill seems reasonable, solicitous of his daughter and her insane mother. But, yes, things are not as they seem, and we are soon jolted by uses of the tools of the dentist’s trade, such as chloroform, that would not receive FDA approval.
All the loose ends are tied up at the end of “The Jacksonian” in a way that you never got with, say, “Twin Peaks.” But for all the spot-on acting and theatrical craftsmanship, “The Jacksonian,”with its odd mix of tones, elusiveness, and truly repellent characters, will not be everybody’s cup of chloroform.
Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row
By Beth Henley
Directed by Robert Falls
Set Design by Walt Spangler, Costume Design by Ana Kuzmanic, Lighting Design by Daniel Ionazzi, and Original Music and Sound Design by Richard Woodbury.
Cast: Ed Harris, Juliet Brett, Amy Madigan, Glenne Headly, and Bill Pullman.
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission
The Jacksonian is set to run through December 22.