Theatre Review of The Jacksonian
The Jacksonian by Beth Henley at the New Group, New York
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
The Jacksonian centers on a mediocre motel by that name in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964. Here, a group of unhappy middle-aged southerners wreak havoc on each other and a little girl. Dentist Bill Perch (Ed Harris) has a failing practice and marriage to unstable wife Susan (Amy Madigan) and an adolescent daughter Rosy (Juliet Brett), who keeps a childish hope that things can improve. Meanwhile, motel bartender Fred (Bill Pullman) is a shady braggadocio fellow pursued by the sensuous aging housekeeper Eva (Glenne Headley) bent on marriage. With a background of the fight over de-segregation in this deeply bigoted area, the group falls into degradation and violence. While the play shoots at easy targets—the paternalistic and prejudiced south seems to be the underlying cause of the characters’ corruption and cruelty—it tells a compelling tale and playwright Beth Henley takes a bold relish in depicting the psychosis and misery underneath the comfortingly soft accents and complacency of the people and town.
The play, presented Off-Broadway by The New Group, and directed by Robert Falls, has a super cast of gritty, audacious veterans. Harris is great as always and we sense the decency—his disdain for racism, and love for his daughter—that has been spoiled by his failure and self-hatred. Headley takes real risks with her slatternly, sad portrayal and Eva’s off-handed racism gives what could have been a typical floozie a casual, ingrained bitterness. Madigan is similarly unflinching in depicting the crazed anger of a woman whose ego won’t let her face the fact that life didn’t turn out the way she expected. Brett is another of these fantastic teen actors you see nowadays, and her outrage, confusion, and vulnerability are the most moving aspects of a darkly humorous and brutal story.
Pullman, an expert comic actor, is amusingly disgusting, but, it might be noted, his broad take often falls short of the reality of the other players. In fact, he and Harris could be playing the wrong parts. It might have been more interesting, and surprising, to watch Pullman as the dentist sinking into insanity and Harris as the second-rate bartender/deviant. We expect the dynamic Harris to be capable of acts of animalism, and when it happens, our shock is muted. Pullman, often the decent man in film, might have been fun to watch as he descended into barbarity. (This worked for him in Edward Albee’s The Goat.) But that, and a story structure that weaves a little awkwardly between past and present, are the only overt flaws in a production and play that avoids sentimentality and embraces its personal squalor with glee.
Scott Klavan, our new theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. He has performed on Broadway and in many off-Broadway and regional productions. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s classic short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The Jacksonian is playing October 25 through December 22, 2013, at The New Group, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY.