Beth Henley's 'The Jacksonian' takes the cast South

By Michael Lamont
Ed Harris (l.) and Glenne Headly star in 'The Jacksonian' as dentist Bill and motel maid Eva.

Playwright Beth Henley’s latest work “The Jacksonian,” debuting in its world premier in Los Angeles, is certainly Southern, but it is anything but comfortable. This 90-minute, part-David Lynch, part-Flannery O’Connor slice of Southern gothic is a reminder of the simultaneously dark and often hilarious mix of confusion, rage, and just plain eccentricity that marked Henley in her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Crimes of the Heart.” 

The five-character, one-act play is set in Jackson, Miss. – the playwright’s hometown – in 1964, during the tumultuous transition era of the deep South, rife with Ku Klux Klan fighting the rising civil rights movement. Real-life husband and wife stars Ed Harris and Amy Madigan play Bill and Susan, a dentist and his social-climbing wife who blames him for her hysterectomy. He has been banished to a dreary motel room at The Jacksonian, where denizens Fred and Eva – played over the top by Bill Pullman and Glenne Headly – haunt the bar and lives of those unlucky enough to pass through what are clearly one-way doors at this flop house on the edge of town.

Holding together the narrative thread of the events that unfold is Bill and Susan’s outrageously unattractive daughter, Rosy. Her fevered, second-sight and nonlinear recollection of the crescendoing events that now define her life swirl around her rising chorus of premonitions and wails for a normal life that was never to be granted this tortured soul. 

The tale of Bill’s fall from grace – both in his work as a dentist and his role as a husband and father – rolls out as a weirdly grotesque counterpoint to the seething, explosive rage suffusing the South. Ku Klux Klan riders were still part of life – the play itself is framed around a real-life story of Henley’s sister’s fifth-grade teacher, affiliated with the KKK, who was shot while wearing hot pants.

A scene in which daughter Rosy delivers a sad, miniature Christmas tree to her father’s motel room – and the two discuss whether or not it requires more lights or ornaments – is torn right out of the playwright’s own life story. Her parents divorced when she was in high school and she was herself the go-between, delivering the tiny tree to her father’s motel room.

This easy juxtaposition of the violent with the cozy is what keeps the genteel veneer of Henley’s work from being either predictable or even necessarily believable. The denouement of the narrative is as unhinged from reality as the characters are from their own lives.

Dancing around the flames of their downfall like dark shadows are Fred, the Elvis-wannabe bartender (Pullman) – complete with lambchop sideburns and slicked-back hair – and Eva, the wiley goldigger motel maid (Headly), with her frowzy rat’s nest hairdo. Each finds particularly juicy pleasure in watching the snooty Bill and Susan slide down the social scale from wealthy suburban home to their life’s finale played out in the 25-ft. radius between the hallway ice-machine and Bill’s motel room.

It is one of the particular pleasures of theater in Los Angeles that some of the screen’s top acting talents turn up to showcase their stage chops – in short-run shows such as this. This evening was directed by Robert Falls who came to L.A. from Chicago’s Goodman Theater specifically for this production which runs in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse.

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