Lot bristles at the label “special needs.” He is a recluse and a self-trained artist who composed a song called “Weird” and collects trash to turn into sculpture. Yes, he says, he is not what he calls a Styrofoam person: “Styrofoam people are allowed to want things. And if you’re special you’re just supposed to need things.”
Lot is sharing his views with Ginny, who has Down syndrome, in “Corsicana,” Will Arbery’s new play about four characters who live in the small Texas town of the play’s title. Each of them has special wants.
In a note in the program of “Corsicana,” which is running at Playwrights Horizons through July 10, the playwright tells us he was inspired to write “Corsicana,” because he has always wanted to write about his relationship with his older sister, Julia Arbery, who has Down syndrome – like the character Ginny, and like the actress who portrays Ginny, Jamie Brewer. At the same time, the playwright didn’t want to turn his sister into an archetype, to be pitied or admired, and he didn’t want to make “Corsicana” into an issue play. The solution he seems to have landed on is to add two more characters, and give all four of them more or less equal weight. The result is the slow unfolding of some vivid, odd, complicated characters brought to life by an extraordinary cast, including Dierdre O’Connell, who finally got the recognition she deserved last week when she won the Tony Award for lead actress in a play. But Arbery’s approach creates some other challenges.
Christopher (Will Dagger), an aspiring filmmaker in his thirties who is currently teaching at the local community college, lives with his older sister Ginny (Jamie Brewer), who has been despondent since their mother died a few months earlier. Their mother’s best friend, a librarian named Justice (Dierdre O’Connell), suggests that Ginny, who has a love of music, could meet Lot, and they could write a song together. Justice’s thinking is that it might be good for both of them; Lot has recently opened up a bit, allowing Justice to arrange for a journalist to write about his art work in a prestigious magazine. He still hasn’t gotten a phone, but he at least now doesn’t keep the front gate shut at all times. Justice urges Christopher to make the pitch.
Lot (Harold Surratt) is wary and difficult. It takes a long time for Lot even to understand what it is Christopher is proposing, and even longer to agree, after Christopher has worked hard not to offend him, and to be persuasive. Christopher suggests that Lot and Ginny could meet just on Mondays for starters.
Lot agrees. “Hell — now I have to start knowing what day is Monday….I have to get a calendar or something.”
The scene is gently amusing, and it is matched when Ginny and Lot finally meet face to face. They just stare at one another for the longest moment. It’s funny, but it also feels real.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to point out that, after many starts and stops, Ginny and Lot do work on a song (actually co-written by Arbery and Joanna Sternberg.) But “Corsicana” is less about what happens; more about what we learn about the characters. Ginny’s taste in music is very different from Lot’s, as is their general approach to life. But they also share more than they know. Neither Ginny nor Lot are easy. Ginny is blunt, and says things that aren’t always true. Lot is wary and has panic attacks. Surratt’s physical show of discomfort is arresting, persuasive. They both speak in non-sequiturs, but this is not the playwright’s excursion into Absurdism; it feels like his insight into the way these authentic-feeling characters would talk.
Much of this is lovely. Arbery, though, is not content to drive home how individuals who are routinely dismissed as weird have the same wants and desires as any other human beings. He also wants to drive home how the two other human beings in the play are themselves weird. Justice sees dead people, some of whom she knows – like Christopher and Ginny’s mother – others she can’t quite place. Christopher has a long monologue late in the play about his father, centering on a long lost letter he wrote as a teenager that magically appeared, and then just as quickly disappeared; he thinks it was delivered and removed by an angel in the person of a postal employee.
I think I get Arbery’s point: Everybody is weird in some way; that’s the norm. But “Corsicana” is long — 150 minutes (including intermission), with long monologues and discursive two-character scenes, in which the characters are as likely to discourse on the purpose of art, the nature of grief, and the importance of community as they are to talk about their past. I wish I had as much patience for all this as I had for Arbery’s 2019 play, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” That play too was character-driven (and two hours long without an intermission.) One difference is a structural one: “Heroes” all occurred on the single night of a reunion, which made the monologues seem more focused (the characters were catching up with one another, after all.)
“Corsicana” is directed by Sam Gold, who, among his many talents, is the go-to director these days for weird interpretations. Although Lot’s outsider art is supposed to be dazzling, we see none of it. The set by Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea is deliberately spare and dreary – a few pieces of furniture, a turntable, a blank wall. The design offers more meaning than appeal. The actors occasionally turn the turntable manually, an action that offers us literal new perspectives, and are perhaps meant to encourage us to see the characters metaphorically from different angles. They also occasionally loosen a corner of the backdrop. These brief moments in which the actors behave like stagehands might be subliminally enforcing the idea that the characters they portray are attempting to gain control of their environment – an environment that has rejected them as weird
When I saw “Corsicana,”I was immediately struck by how many times the characters call each other weird or weirdos. O’Connell had already started working on this play when she accepted her Tony earlier this month. Was it just a coincidence that in her acceptance speech she said:
“I would love for this little prize to be a token for every person who is wondering, ‘Should I be trying to make something that could work on Broadway or that could win me a Tony Award, or should I be making the weird art that is haunting me, that frightens me, that I don’t know how to make, that I don’t know if anyone in the whole world will understand? Please let me, standing here, be a little sign to you from the universe to make the weird art.”
At Playwrights Horizons through July 10
Running time is approximately 2:30, including one intermission
Written by Will Arbery
Directed by Sam Gold.
Scenic design by Laura Jellinek, costume design by Qween Jean, lighting design by Isabella Byrd, sound design by Justin Ellington, composer Joanna Sternberg(
Cast: Jamie Brewer, Will Dagger, Deirdre O’Connell, Harold Surratt