Monday, February 3, 2014

"The Jacksonian" - Taut and Suspensful

By Judd Hollander

Some people will go to extreme lengths to avoid being alone while at the same time doing their best to ignore the gravity of their situation even as it comes crashing down around them. A point soberly brought home in Beth Henley's The Jacksonian, now being presented by The New Group at Theatre Row Studios.

1964 Jackson, Mississippi. Bill Perch (Ed Harris), a local and well-respected dentist is going through a rough patch. His practice is losing money and he's moved out of his home at the request of his wife Susan (Amy Madigan), ending up at the Jacksonian Hotel, one of the less respectable establishments in town. Here he has remained for several months, despite the continual pleas of his teenage daughter Rosy, (Juliet Brett), a somewhat hi-strung sort, that he return home.

However Bill may have bigger problems than the possible the end of his marriage. He has trouble controlling his temper, is addicted to nitrous oxide and chloroform, among other substances, and soon catches the eye of hot-to-trot hotel employee Eva White (Glenne Headly), who is looking for her latest meal ticket. Bill also may be in trouble with the state licensing board over an alleged incident with one of his patients. As for Eva, she was originally going out with Fred Weber (Bill Pullman), the monosyllabic, slow moving hotel bartender who keeps hemming and hawing about their plans to marry. At least that was her plan before Bill became a possibility in her eyes. Fred's quiet manner also hiding an unsettling air of danger about him. Meanwhile, the entire town is dealing with the aftermath of a gas station shooting where a young mother was killed, an elderly black man now on death row for the crime. Though some have doubts he actually pulled the trigger.

With all these volatile elements threatening to explode, it's not surprising there's murder afresh in the air. Though in actuality the murder is committed even before the play begins with Rosy announcing this to the audience in the opening moments, the question then becoming who was killed, who did the killing, and why. Taking place over an approximately seven month period, the play skillfully flashes back and forward in time answering these questions while showing how damaged each of the people in the story actually are.

If there's a constant theme running through Hanley's text, it's how change can be both terribly frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Each of the characters having to make that choice or face it being made for them. Conversely, many of those portrayed are also desperately trying to hold on to what makes sense to them, even if it's entirely the wrong thing to do. Such as Susan, who is clearly ready to leave Bill on the one hand, but on the other still has a deep sense of proprietary rights when it comes to his relationship with Eva.

Casting is excellent. Harris is great as the rapidly downward spiraling Bill. A man whose addictions threaten to consume him even as he strives to maintain an air of respectability. He's also has a rather strong anti-racist streak in him, continually correcting the racial epithets hurled by Eva. Indeed, one begins to wonder if the incident with one of his patients happened solely because of his rumored inebriation or was in actuality a strike against a bigoted person egged on by Bill's clouded judgment.

Where Harris' character wears his emotions just below the surface, Pullman plays Fred as a sort of ticking time bomb. His appearance calling to mind an aging Elvis Presley, there is something about his performance that's positively skin-crawling. Yet at the same time so compelling, it's impossible to take one's eyes off him whenever he's on stage. Fred also makes quiet clear his intentions toward Bill's wife and daughter; ones that may lead to no good if followed up on.

Madigan is okay as Susan, though this is the one place where Henley didn't develop a character as much as she should. Susan often existing more as a plot device, one representing home and togetherness for both Bill and Rosy rather than anything resembling flesh and blood and it would have been nice to see a little more of who she is, as she's only given a fleeting moment or two to define herself. Still Madigan does well with what she has to work with.

Headly is fine as Eva, a stereotypical southern redneck who has her own hopes and dreams for the future even through they're pretty much non-realistic from the get go. She's also not above using her feminine wiles to snare a man with deep financial pockets, while not caring in the least who she may hurt in the process.

Brett is interesting as Rosy, a quiet and shy girl desperate for her mother and father to reunite yet also contemplating a rather dangerous fall back position if that doesn't happen. More worried about being left alone than anything else, it is in Brett's and Pullman's scenes together - one which is quite painful to watch - which clearly shows how terrifying change can be for some people. Brett also serves the narrator for the play, setting up the story at the beginning and imparting the denouement at the end, the moments tying things up in a very realistic and satisfactory, if not completely neat package.

Robert Falls' direction is sure handed here, helping the piece to move in a lackadaisical manner which benefits the story atmosphere, yet never making anything feel overlong or unnecessary. Falls also helps to keep the tension present throughout, setting up a situation where one can never tell what will happen next, with the threat of violence never far away.

Walt Spangler's set of the hotel is excellent, nicely setting the tone and place for the story. Bill's hotel room having the air of a thousand similar locations around the country; that being one of impersonality, loneliness and completely devoid of intimacy. Costumes by Richard Woodbury are good and Woodbury's sound design and Daniel Ionazzi's lighting work very well here, especially in the opening and closing sequences. The fight choreography by Ned Mochel is superbly done and quite realistic.

Tautly written and staged where the outcome is never certain until the very end, The Jacksonian is a gripping suspense thriller offering a haunting look at people caught up in circumstances of their own making without a moral compass to guide them home.

The Jacksonian

Featuring: Ed Harris (Bill Perch), Glenne Headly (Eva White), Amy Madigan (Susan Perch), Bill Pullman (Fred Weber), Juliet Brett (Rosy Perch).

Written by Beth Henley
Scenic Design: Walt Spangler
Costume Design: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Design: Daniel Ionazzi
Costume and Sound Design: Richard Woodbury
Assistant Director: Young Ji
Fight Coordinator: Ned Mochel
Production Supervisor: PRF Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Wright
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: DR Advertising
General Management: DR Theatrical Management
Directed by Robert Falls

Presented by The New Group
Theatre Row Studios
Acorn Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes, no intermission

Closed: December 22, 2013

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